Chapter 38 – The True Enemy Revealed
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“No, you're him, you're him! The one who shot Jules and all his men!" The scrawny man squealed, scuttling back from the sight of Eric's scarred features in the flickering lamplight that somehow hadn't yet gone out.

Eric flashed an ice-cold smile, doffing his hat and dipping his head. “I am.”

“You… you killed them all. You’re a monster. A fucking monster!”

Eric tilted his head with a bemused smirk. “If I'm a monster, then what does that make you? How many lives would have been lost, if you and your cronies actually managed to lead the orcs to Junk Town?"

Usef opened his mouth, took a sharp ragged breath, and closed it, lowering his head. A true worm of a man, who only felt shame when confronted with the ugliness of his own deeds. “I didn’t want to… I wanted to stay! They, um...they made me do it.”

“Of course they did.”

Usef flinched at the cold contempt in Eric’s voice.

“You don’t understand!” he sobbed, eyes wide with terror, knowing his death was just a whisper away. “We had no choice! Hundreds, no, thousands of us were being put into those nightmare pods. Everyone was screaming, sobbing, it was, oh fuck, it was something out a nightmare that wouldn’t end!” Usef was pale and trembling, eyes wide with horror, caught up in memories Eric understood all too well.

“When the spear pressed against my back, and I knew I had to enter...”

The man broke down in sobs. “I thought I was done for. That this was the end!” He swallowed. “But then, by some miracle, some fucking miracle, I… the pod said I was a worthless trash-tier human, but it wasn’t permitted to kill me for some reason I didn’t quite get, so it spat me out and I, well, I lived!”

Eric nodded. “Yeah, there is something seriously fucked up about that pod. Nothing like in the Isekai books I read, back when people thought leveling up was just a game.”

Usef’s eyes widened, and he grinned in an unexpected moment of shared camaraderie. “I know, right? Completely fucking psycho! So there I was, with a bunch of class selections crossed out...”

“Except for the Conscript class. Am I right?"

“Exactly!” said Usef with a wry little chuckle, eyes widening with genuine gratitude when Eric sat beside him, passing him a still piping hot rat skewer. “Thanks, man, pretty tasty!”

“They are, aren't they? But I guess you'd know. Rich said something about you fighting rats? Nasty buggers, if you don't know what you're doing."

“I know, right? Fuckin' little monsters of spite they are."

Eric chuckled and nodded his head, both of them pretending he hadn’t killed the pockmarked Rich, just minutes ago. "They truly are," Eric concurred, taking a bite of his own rat skewer. "Next time, I'm definitely adding honey, if I can scrounge it."

"You need honey?" Usef's ratlike features positively beamed. "I can get you honey. You'd be surprised by all the foodstuff the orcs leave for us humans! All they want is meat, and lots of it."

“I can imagine,” Eric said. “So, what, the orcs had you fighting rats to prove yourself, and then you got to like, what, become citizens of their realm or something?”

Usef nodded. “Exactly! Lessers, they called us. Basically, though, all we do is hunt rats in the pair of massive city Delves filled with nothing but loads of those swarming fuckers. Us glorified classers? We're all basically just rat farmers! It's pretty much all the orcs eat, save, well, for us. But less so than before. And no matter what Rich said, I only chickened out on the first rat hunt! Because no matter how bad it got, the job was still a fuck-ton better than being one of the slaves!”

"I'll bet," Eric said, forcing a smile as Usef cackled. "Still, it must have been tough. And scary, having these eight-foot tall big bad bosses all over that you didn’t dare offend.

Usef shrugged. “Eh, it’s not all bad. Like I said, there’s a shit ton of supplies we Lessers have access to. We can even pick refugees we like! And if the big bosses are okay with it, well, we’ve pretty much saved their lives!”

Eric grinned and ribbed the man’s shoulder. “Let me guess. There are quite a few fine lookin’ girls among those grateful refugees, willing to do whatever their hero needs to unwind after a long hard day of rat-farming, am I right?”

"You know it! And if you're into bondage, they look damn cute in cuffs and collars!" Usef said with a shit-eating grin, before suddenly flinching. "But it's not like..."

“How old’s the youngest girl in your harem?”

Usef flushed. “Um… well... I’m not gonna discriminate when saving lives, ya know?”

“Sure, Usef. You’re a real saint. Enjoying the meat stick? Have another.”

Usef flashed a strained smile. "Uh… thanks? So, yeah. I’m just doing my part to keep the human race going, you know?”

Eric forced a smile. "Sounds like it's been real tough. But hey, it seems like you had a pretty good thing going. Why did you want to risk a nice safe life of rat hunting and slave abusing for something as precarious as serving as an invasion scout?"

Usef paled. "Wait, it's not like..." he swallowed. "Yeah, it's like Rich said. Adventurers who join the orcs can have a pretty sweet life. As long as they obey the bosses, they can do whatever the fuck they want, after filling their weekly rat quota. Including smack anyone who gets mouthy, claim slaves, party all night long, even start a harem of their own. And one of the shamans, the one with the sharpest eyes of the bunch, is even encouraging some of us to set up farms and foundries."

The man snorted. "Not that I know the first fucking thing about farming, and frankly, I don't think they understand how modern cities work at all. It's all just e-commerce, retail shopping. All the manufacturing plants were moved to the other fucking side of the world, once foreign governments and big corporations began bribing all our senators to make it happen. Because fuck people having a decent paying job and feeding their families, it's all about making money with cheap labor, am I right?"

Usef’s ratlike features took on a world-weary mien as he sighed and shook his head. “People judge us for being on the winning team, because we might have a few bitches collard? At least the orcs are honest about how the world works! Our fucking country already sold out the working class to make the super-rich even richer, years ago! Happily shipping jobs to subsidiary companies in countries that had no unions or worker-rights at all! All our fancy high-tech toys made by half-starved bastards treated far worse than I treat my harem! So fuck them and their hypocrisy, am I right?”

Eric just stared at the man. “I think you might be oversimplifying things just a bit. But you know what? None of that matters anymore." He gripped Usef's shoulder and squeezed, while keeping his scarred face the picture of kind concern. "Yusef… you're not really a bad sort, are you? Maybe just a bit misunderstood, just doing what you have to, in order to survive. Am I right?"

Usef gulped, immediately latching onto Eric's words. "Yeah, man. That's exactly right!" He forced a chuckle. "Strong grip. I know what I gotta put some points into, when I finally level!"

Eric flashed a pitying smile. “So, why the hell are you risking your life down here, when you could be hunting rats and getting stronger and tougher up there?”

"Because Conscript is a shit class!" The man hissed desperately, anxious words flowing out like a dam about to burst, as he quickly spoke on. "Eric, you're name is Eric, right? That's what they call you in town. Badass Eric, the latest recruit to Morlekai's crew. But out of all of you, and I know you're all pretty fuckin' badass… do any of you have any class besides this fucking Conscript bullshit we were all stuck with?"

His eyes lit upon Eric’s silence.

“Exactly! The orcs, man. They’re tough… hell, they’re bloody savage, but fair. In their own way. They don’t give a fuck about your past, or any Amber Alert bullshit that was all based on a stupid misunderstanding! If you got the grit to hunt down rats and level up? You get to live as a citizen in the strongest fucking empire on Earth! But that’s just the start! If you take on and complete their missions? Eric, I swear, it’s like a fucking role playing game for real! You actually get access to trainers who will teach you what you need to know to grab the Javelineer, Berserker, and Shieldbearer classes! Ranged, DPS, and Tank! Fucking sweet, am I right? So that once we’re level ten, we’ll be set for fucking life, powering above all the losers stuck with Conscript until they retire or croak!”

He nodded his head at Eric. “And badass as you are, fuck it. You might even be able to pick up their advanced Tribal Warlord class! Because they don’t give a shit about the scars on your face. All of them are pretty butt ugly themselves, you know?”

Usef brayed like a donkey, and Eric forced a smile.

"So… yeah. Fuck this place, fuck these damp stone corridors, fuck, scrounging just to survive as a shit-tier no-one!" Usef gazed furtively around, though there was no one there. "And Eric, just so you know, we were promised gold."

Eric blinked at this. “Gold?”

The rat-faced man solemnly nodded. “All we have to do is show them where Junk Town is. We don’t even have to join the fight ourselves! We’ll get… are you ready for this? One hundred gold!”

Eric’s eyes widened. “Seriously? A hundred gold eagles?”

Usef grinned. “Exactly what I said when I saw the quest board they set up! One hundred gold, our choice of habitation in one of the more stable high-rises, and a dozen fertile females of our race. Of course we split all that between us. But Eric, my man, that’s fifty gold and six of the finest beauties each!” Cold laughter rang through the corridor. “And trust me, those girls will be all over themselves trying to get on your good side, after what the orcs put them through.”

Eric forced a smile to his face, his clenched fists carefully hidden. “Awesome! So all we have to do is meet your friends and they’ll sign me up, give me the gold, and let me pick a superior customized class?”

“Pretty much, yeah!” a now beaming Usef assured, before glaring down at the now headless Rich, the other bodies seemingly banished. “You know what? I’m glad you killed those fuckheads. Wanting to kill me when I never did shit to anyone! I’m just doing my job, same as any soldier. Am I right? I mean, just look at Rich’s motherfucking head! That fucking pockmarked asshole was spat out with a permanent infection he said the pod declared to now be a part of him! Tied to him forever! Spiteful fucking pod.”

Usef forced a laugh. “Trust me, Rich is better off dead. You don’t know how much he drove us crazy, all that whimpering and sobbing half the night with his constant scratching. Besides, this way, there’s more loot for you and me!” He all but cackled as he raced to fleece what he could from his fallen leader, eyes widening with excitement when scrabbling hands revealed not one but two coin pouches, one of them filled with the warm golden lustre of gold flickering in the torchlight.

“We’re rich, Eric! See? Us teaming up was fucking destined!” He scowled at the mans’ armor. “Not that I can fit his shit, but damn if that isn’t a nice boar spear!”

And it was, Eric thought, even if the shaft was bit thicker than most spears, it was still comfortable in the grip, and the oversized head meant nothing at 16 Strength, and was no doubt quite fitting for an orc.

Wielded by the smaller, far scrawnier man though? It looked nothing short of absurd.

The grinning Usef looked crestfallen, lowering his head when Eric slowly shook his head and held out his hand. “But…”

“The coin bags too, Usef.”

Usef sighed. “Whatever you say, boss.” His gaze then lightened up, spotting the seven foot long pilum that one of the men had dropped, comprised of a wooden shaft socketing a long thin iron shank tipped by a bodkin arrow-head point.

“Perfect! I’d rather a proper spear with a nice leaf-shaped head, but these things are vicious for piercing armor, boss. If you had seen that arena match between...” his excited expression collapsed. “You’re, um, claiming this one too, boss?”

Eric’s cold smile didn’t quite reach his eyes as he tossed the man the shattered remnants of a spear that was now just a four foot long stick.

Usef gulped, confident good cheer replaced by anxious uncertainty once more. "Um… I can't help you fight off any… whatever the fuck comes this way if I don't have a decent weapon, boss."

"True. But we have to stay in character, don't we, Usef? If you tell your bosses that Neils and the others fell in a pitched battle, and you show no signs of injury or hardship whatsoever… that wouldn't look realistic either, would it?"

Usef furrowed his brow. “Well sure, but...”

“I mean, I could always break your arm, or fill your armor with gaping tears, and that would explain why you had to flee without your masters burning you as a coward, and still have an intact weapon in hand. But that’s kind of a hassle for both of us. And your pace would slow to shit, if you’re leaking blood everywhere. Don’t you think?”

Usef gulped and paled, quickly stepping back. “Um… you know what? Broken spear haft works just fine for me, boss.”

“Great! Somehow, I was certain you’d come around. Now, let’s go see about that reward and classes worthy of our skills, no?”

Usef's anxious gaze immediately brightened. "Right you are, boss. Just follow me, and I'll have you set up with your own sweet pad and the cutest girls you could ask for in no time!"

Eric forced himself to chuckle. “Lead the way, Usef. I’m right behind you.”

"Right away, boss. Um... you sure you don't want us walking side by side?"

“Shut up and walk, Usef.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

Congratulations! You have successfully Intimidated your target!

Acting is now Rank 3!

Negotiation is now Rank 5!

You may now emulate the Intimidation skill with a successful combined Acting / Negotiation skill check! This skill check may be further enhanced by unusual displays of Strength, callousness, or extreme violence!

Within moments of Eric slipping further behind the anxious Usef, holding a lantern in one land and a broken staff he used as a walking stick in the other, a cloud of red mist that was a murder of red crows swirled about for long moments before seeming to disappear in the whipping coat tails of Morlekai's frock coat once more.

The pair of them flashed equally savage grins. “How do you feel, Eric?”

Eric snorted. “Acting and Negotiation just went up a point each. My reward, I suppose, for not throttling that bastard. Now I’m hungry for some fucking orc hearts.”

Morlekai chuckled softly. "Soon, my bloodthirsty friend. Soon. And I do believe our hosts are just ahead."

And it was all Eric could do to keep one foot in front of the other at a measured pace behind Usef as his heart pounded with fury, infravision catching the outlines of the five orcs a short distance away in exquisite detail. Four of them were giant eight and a half-footers covered in ochre skin with bristly fur and boarish faces, complete with snout, tusks, and beady little eyes that only a mother could love. And probably not even her.

Two held braces of javelins and round shields with axes at their belts, the other two wielded impressive looking spears in two-handed grips. All save one wore an assortment of thick rawhide and crude mail hauberks over their torsos, legs covered in furs with thick rawhide boots and odd looking half helms with horns attached on top, which had never actually been worn by Vikings, only fantasy Nordmen. Then Eric realized that the horns were living extensions of the orc's skulls, and not ornamentation at all. Rather, there were sockets on top of the helm which were fitted over the horns.

The fifth among their number was an ugly shade of puce and far shorter than the others, a shriveled old orc with broken tusks who barely topped six feet, dressed in robes and squeezing a gnarled staff of blackened hardwood. His red-rimmed eyes were brimming with malice, yet the elder orc forced a caricature of a smile upon seeing a visibly trembling Usef approach.

“Ah… the least of our worms has actually managed to return. Have all your companions fallen? Do our enemies know our plans?” The final words were said with a hiss.

A visibly whimpering Usef desperately shook his head. “No, great lord Usgul, not at all! The…” he swallowed. “Um… Jules did just like you suggested for the extra bonus. He attempted to take over the town from within.”

“Excellent!’ The Elder known as Usgul crowed. “So, he has claimed the town, then?”

Usef swallowed, visibly trembling. “Um… not exactly? You see, they were kind of intercepted by um...”

“Speak, human!” The orc roared.

“Vampires!” Usef shrieked. “The town’s defended by a nest of vampires! They devoured all our men on the inside!”

Usgul seemed to glow with a sudden sickly green aura. The air suddenly reeked with the putrid scents of bile, excrement, and rotting flesh. "What are you talking about, human?"

The grand tunnel echoed with the panicked infiltrator’s account of all that had transpired, and perhaps he had even forgotten Eric’s place as his supposed ally, going into vivid and visceral description of Eric’s scarred appearance, and just how ruthless he had been with his chosen weapons.

Which was fine by Eric, having already faded into the darkness, letting the patter wash over him, even as the four bored-looking guards, who clearly didn’t know English, stood there in a stupor, their bodies weaving just a tiny bit as the pair of spearmen yawned wide, revealing vicious-looking canines in addition to their tusks. They rubbed their eyes, snorted, spat green gobbets of snot, and went back to their desultory watch over the Elder Usgul, beady eyes blinking in the dim torchlight.

Eric’s heartbeat slowed, the coals of his fury banked to cold killing intent. Studying the ticks and rocking movements of the bored sentinels until he had memorized the pattern of their seemingly random movements, now feeling like he was just an extension of his prey. Already knowing when they'd lean back and yawn, or peer bleary-eyed into the darkness.

Such that when the pair of spearmen tilted their heads and snorted, murmuring quiet guttural words in orcish that Eric’s communication nodule translated with exquisite precision regarding the fate of several formerly nubile slave girls, Eric was ready.

“And then after he shot down most of our men, that damned bastard of a vampire came out, surrounded by a swarm of bloody crows and they..." Usef began to shudder. "The birds... they devoured Jules from the inside out!" he sobbed, and Eric couldn't hold back a dark little grin as the poor fool finally got it. Recalled, perhaps, that Eric had nothing to do with the crows back at the house. That had been all Morlekai. Which meant that Eric hadn't been the one responsible for the crows that had devoured Usef's associates from within, just hours ago.

Which meant that Eric had never been alone. Which meant that all his bemused reassurance and seeming interest in joining the ‘winning team,’ as the rat-faced man had put it, had been no more genuine than the oath that Usef and his friends had sworn to gain entrance into Junk Town.

“But wait, that means… oh no. Oh no, no, no!” His panicked voice became a screech. “He’s not alone. Eric’s not the only one!”

Critical Success! You have found your foe’s weakness! You have fatally struck Orc Spear Thrower! Spear Thrower has perished!

Orc Conscript fails to spot you!

The shaman scowled. “What by the bloodstone tree are you talking about, worm?”

The old green monster's eyes widened in alarm only when he heard a pair of thuds crashing to the ground. Instinctively spinning around, his staff of gnarled wood glowing a sickly green light as he took a closer look at his personal guard. The first was slumped over in death, a ruptured eye and the crossbow tip lodged in the back of the orc's cast iron helm making it clear that his demise had been instantaneous, while the second shield warrior was kicking at the ground as he twisted and thrashed, oversized hands struggling against the bolt in its neck, but any movement just made the bleeding worse as the monster wheezed and gasped and desperately attempted to clear its lungs of blood pouring in from a perforated jugular.

Priceless seconds of stunned disbelief, all eyes drawn to the pair of fallen guards, most especially the one who kicked and thrashed and fought so desperately against the death trying to claim him.

Seconds Eric used to deadly effect, drawing a second doubleshot and lining it up with the two remaining orcs, the pair snorting and squealing in an odd combination of panic and outrage.

Eric’s lips curled in a lethal grin as he caressed the trigger of his second doubleshot. A weapon that twanged with the force of death released from cords vibrating with killing intent.

An eyeblink later, the jugular of the one orc still shaking away his surprise erupted in a crimson spray as the creature’s eyes bulged and it collapsed, hands to its throat, heels kicking the ground, dying in exactly the same way as the orc before him. And just by chance, the final sentinel chose that moment to look the way of a coldly smiling Eric, utterly cloaked in gloom he was somehow able to lift just long enough for piggish pupils to widen and a mind to freeze at catching sight of Eric, before being pierced by a crossbow bolt traveling at 375 feet per second, bursting right through the back of the orc’s thick skull, a mangled thing covered in blood and brains now skittering down the hallway as the final orc classer collapsed with an audible clatter to the hard stone ground.

“It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me!” Usef shrieked, so terrified he couldn’t even regain his feet, scurrying back down the corridor on his hands and knees as Usgul roared his fury, the staff in his hands now pulsing with a green light as black tendrils of ichor wavered through the air.

“Who dares to attack the custos of Usgul the Terrible? Come out, worms! Come out and face my Dreadclaw that shall rend the flesh from your bones!”

Eric’s furious joy instantly turned to an awful sense of foreboding. He couldn’t deny the sudden cold frisson of dread trickling down his spine as the waving dark lines against green mist coalesced into what seemed the crude outline of a gate.

A gate from which he could hear, far off in the misty green distance, the horrific cacophony of a monstrous predator. A predator that was rushing for the mystic gate with supernatural speed that left Eric frozen where he stood.

"Move, Eric!" Morlekai roared in his mind, jolting Eric out of his idiotic stupor as the air was suddenly flooded by a massive swarm of crimson ravens that immediately split up. Half flooding into the fatally wounded orcs, the other half harrying a snarling orc summoner who, much to Eric’s dismay, was protected so well by his shimmering ward that not a single crow was able to penetrate.

“You!" Snarled the orc. "A bloodmage dares to set foot in Blackclaw territory? You and all your kind will pay for this, Necromancer!"

Usgul’s taunt was met by a furious surge of crimson wings… but not a one could break through the barrier.

The old orc’s eyes lit with fiercest glee. “My summons approach the barriers between worlds, fool! Best run! Run now while you can! Perhaps you can even prolong the hunt just long enough to make it interesting, before my Dreadclaw rends the flesh from your bones!”

“Eric!”

You have successfully saved versus Terror’s Grip!

But Eric was already moving, ignoring the cold beads of sweat on his forehead as he traded crossbow for blood-linked weapon in the blink of an eye, remembering with such exquisite clarity the lessons of the night before. Not only the cost of forging the artifact now blazing in his hands, a furiously burning weapon that caused even the summoner to flinch back in alarm, but the boon as well.

A boon he had every intention of putting to maximum effect as the last of the bodyguards slipped completely into death, and the flood of potency roared through his soul.

The orc shaman’s eyes glittered with hate. He snarled, holding his staff at the ready, sneering as Eric pressed forward, into the dim ball of light emitted by the eldritch green flame now bobbing above his head, the torches held by the two smallest orcs already guttering out in pools of blood. “Fool! You think your pretty arrows can harm one such as I? You think your blade can pierce a ward not even a bloodmage can sunder? For your arrogance alone, you shall be made to suffer a thousand screams for your crimes!

And with a vicious smile, the shaman shot forth a swarm of black hornets from a fist visibly shriveling before Eric's eyes.

“Eric, be careful!”

But he was no fool. He could sense his peril, as could the hornets hurtling to the ground as a wildly whipping bar of steel furiously blazing at over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit instantly fried to a crisp the wings of any enchanted bug, death-wasp or otherwise, who got anywhere near Eric. Then he was before the shaman's ward, paying no attention to the summoner's widening eyes or desperately howled curse, all Eric's focus on plunging his blade with all his hate and power in one furious surge of will and intent.

For an endless moment, the bubble gave, but did not burst, and Eric knew he was about to be sent flying back into the swarm of hornets even now darting around to strike at his unprotected face.

Willpower check successful! You have accepted the peril of your daring, and still you press on!

You have suffered 4 Lancing Wounds!

You have saved versus Excrustiating Pain!

But Eric refused to accept fate’s decree even as he choked back a scream from the agony of hornets furiously stinking his scarred face, stingers tearing right through his cheeks. It was only because Morlekai was still swarming around the shaman, snapping up countless scores of hornets, that Eric hadn't been lanced with a thousand stingers by now.

But he was running out of time. He and Morlekai both. He could sense that all too clearly.

With a desperate snarl, he pressed forward with the same furious hate that had him plunging after his sister, not that long ago. Jumping into a fire pit he never should have survived, before sending one final orc lurching into their own death trap before breaking free.

Only now, it was him holding the flame, his furious intent manifesting and quantifying as his rank 8 level-up, not needing to open his character sheet to place his points at all, realizing that his Soul Reserves had always been far beyond what his interface had ever shown.

Contest of Power between Shaman Ward and Apprentice Blood-Linked Artifact enhanced by 24 Soul Reserves!

Contest successfully modified by Burst of Strength!

And in a hideous cacophony of screaming darkness and howling light, the strangely pulsating gate promising horrors undreamed abruptly exploded, and Eric found himself cartwheeling through the air.

It was all he could do to curl himself up for impact before being stunned by a titanic crack, as if a giant bat had crushed his ribs.

And for countless seconds he could do nothing more than wheeze desperately for air, every square inch of his body either numb, or throbbing with pain.

He tried to ignore the faint alarm bell of panic ringing inside his head as he continued to wheeze and gasp for air, ruthlessly suppressing stunned panic as he lurched to his side, spitting out a gobbet of bright red blood, holding back a groan as inhuman shouts and roars could be heard in the distance.

He knew death in the form of an orcish war party was coming, and it didn’t matter. He was so hurt he could hardly move. Of Morlekai, his oddly disjointed gaze caught no sight… no, wait, there he was.

Holding back a groan of sheer agony, Eric crawled his way toward the still body of Morlekai, shocked to see his friend with the pallor of the dead, yet surprisingly, his pulse still beat, thin and thready as it was.

Eric held back a whimper, already knowing what he would have to do just as soon as his lungs cleared enough to breathe and… yes.

He breathed down a great big ragged gasp of air that had never tasted so sweet, only then trusting himself to slowly, carefully drag his friend by his trench coat back, back down a handful of winding corridors back the way they had come, back when Usif had darted so quickly in mimed excitement for an end to their journey that a coldly smiling Eric had thought Usef had been doing all he could to shake free of their tail.

But with Eric’s fully incorporated interface effortlessly tying all the corridors together in an ever-growing map of the underground network caverns, sewers, and tunnels under the city, that wasn’t happening any time soon.

If there was a plus side, it was that the furiously roaring orcs howling about everything from Elven snipers to treacherous humans to a hostile coup from within, had no idea how to navigate the maze back to the passages the spies had originally used to enter their domain.

Or so Eric had hoped, as he gently put Morlekai down, taking a moment to peer as far into the cool depths of the tunnel as he could, seeing no signs of any monsters.

Only the rat eager to betray them once more, when the corridors rang with the sound of an orc’s fierce, guttural cry. “I found an escaped slave!”

“My lords, my lords! I am no slave, I am a Lesser! A Lesser serving the will of the Elders!”

This earned a derisive snort. “Speak, Lesser, and pray we accept your excuses, or your death will be slow and painful!”

“Of course, great masters! I… I was one of the hunters quested with finding the human burrows your seers sensed daring to thrive underneath our great city! I can show you the location, but I must warn you, they are protected by a coven of vampires! Vampires that are planning on attacking your encampments above, even now! Vampires that I did my best to fight off beside the great Elder Usgol the Terrible himself, who declared me his custos after my efforts, now sworn to serve him even after his death!"

Usef then hammed it up with a melodramatic sob that made Eric wince as much as Elonia had with all his first takes of any scene. "His final dying words, after I delivered the death blow to a single vampire, were to bring the strongest soldiers that could be spared from the city above, and lead them on a hunt rich in blood and treasure as we track every last one of those monstrous abominations down! Only then would I be worthy to serve as chief spokesman for the human slaves of Junk Town. Your slaves, my lords. It was Elder Usgol's dying wish that I prove my loyalty by serving the Elders as their eyes and ears while ruling the chattel and extracting every last drop of productivity I can from them, for the sake of our masters above. Now we must make haste, my lords, before it is too late!"

This earned a snort as several spoke in a guttural form of Orcish even Eric’s interface took a moment or two translating. “Does this worm speak the truth?”

“It matters not,” snorted another. “If he can lead us to the humans, the Elders will be most pleased.”

“Did Elder Usgol truly make this worm custos?”

Eric could all but sense the indifferent shrug as he forced his wheezing body down the corridor, snaking along twists and turns far more numerous and dizzying than he remembered, just minutes ago.

“I have no wish to anger Usgol’s spirit. Nor would the elders. He was a nasty old bastard. So long as this worm exacts the expected tribute from the slave colony below, no one will care what he does.”

“Do you believe this shit about vampires?”

This earned a derisive snort. "We have a full contingent of twenty, and two torchbearers to light our way. We’d burn any vampire to cinders that dares to get close! The plan is simple. We’ll let this clever little rat lead us to the slave den, tear through their pathetic resistance, put the fear of their masters into their spines, take the strongest and most fertile, and leave this one to govern the survivors. He’ll have his slaves send tribute every moon if he does not wish to join them, and the elders will reward us well, with the booty we bring back!”

“Damn right the will, Trog! So let’s be off. Before any other war parties think they can claim our booty.”

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