Stathis groaned, pulling herself up, wounds aching. For something reported as a simple tomb, the place had been filled with what seemed to be an endless horde of monsters. Parth had been counting up the treasure, a massive pile of copper, barely worth the trouble of carrying. Next to it was a two-handed sword, the blade shaped of darkest obsidian, golden runes etched beneath the surface, flickering with flames of darkness.
‘Valuable. Useless. Problem.’
Stathis sighed. While Parth was a valued ally and skilled fighter, it would be nice if she managed sentences longer than the bare minimum. Although considering the rest of her crew… She glanced at them, Semari apparently napping on top of a pile of bones, Janaxia looking at herself in a hand mirror, either communicating with her dark masters to further their evil plans in the mortal realm, or, judging by the brush in her other hand, checking and reapplying her makeup. Some days, the latter seemed like it would be preferable.
‘Looks pretty powerful. Going to be a pain to shift isn’t it?’
‘There’s nowhere near enough of this trash for equal shares for the rest.’
She looked at the heaps of copper, enough weight that two men would struggle to carry it and worth maybe enough to get them some nice inn rooms for a few weeks. Scarcely worth the trouble involved! She looked at one of the coins – not even old or rare, just common Old Empire garbage. Who on earth had themselves buried with thousands of copper coins?
‘Right, so someone’s going to have to take it, and sacrifice future shares. You two, any volunteers to take a sword? Magic, valuable? Probably worth something to someone!’
Semari opened an eye, willing to be vaguely awake when money was being discussed. ‘It’s for stabbing people. You should take it, that’s, like, your thing.’
‘It’s a two-hander. Also, dark, shadowy and possibly evil.’
‘Toss it to Janaxia. That’s pretty much her.’
Janaxia glared at her, tidying her hair. Quite why she felt the need, considering she had spent the entire fight away from the melee, throwing in her weirdly-shaped blobs of eldritch energy, safely on the sidelines, was something of a mystery to Stathis.
I have little need of such a thing. Semari is looking rather ragged, she should sell it and take the money
Janaxia’s voice still hadn’t recovered, although she had been able to manage to cast a few spells, even if they were far less effective than normal. By contrast, Semari had leapt into the fray, her fists and feet shattering through the animated bodies of their foes, their attacks slashing her simple clothing apart, leaving her distinctly ragged-looking, and Stathis thankful that she had bought a change of clothing for her, wary of another indecency charge upon returning to civilisation.
‘Look, one of us has to take it, we can’t just leave it here to mess up some dumb village kid looking for treasure.’
Semari wandered over, picking it up. A dark energy washed out from it, her skin darkening, eyes turning red. She raised the sword over her head, cackling, before she swung it down with a mighty attack, cleaving through an empty sarcophagus, before charging towards Stathis. Stathis sighed, feinted with an attack to draw her forward, then slammed her shield into Semari’s forearm, before smacking the blade out of her hand with a gauntleted fist. It skidded against the floor and clattered against the far wall, as Semari returned to normal, burning glow fading from her eyes to be replaced with a dazed look.
‘OK, no-one else pick it up. Janaxia, can you move it?’
Janaxia sighed, still able to vocally express her displeasure at being asked to perform such a menial task, even if she couldn’t manage words. Nevertheless, she made an arcane gesture, a shimmering magical energy appearing, lifting the blade from the ground. Somewhat disconcertingly, black mist streamed from the blade into the shimmer, the vague mist achieving an ugly physicality. It moved with strange twitches and jerks, Janaxia’s control imprecise, and taking all her concentration. As it moved close to her, she swayed slightly, growing pale, reaching out to support herself on the wall. The sword suddenly twitched, jumping towards her, the black mist twining around and enveloping it. It smacked into Janaxia with a solid blow, enough to knock her backwards, luckily leading with the hilt.
Stathis moved forward, stamping down on the blade in case it moved again, glad of her thick shoes. ‘Are you OK?’
‘… …ng’ It took her a moment to remember that she couldn’t talk. That was a surprise. Although it was just a glancing blow
Stathis kept a close eye on Janaxia, in case she had been infected, but she didn’t go crazy or evil, or at least any more than usual, her red forelock only slightly glowing crimson, amongst the black.
‘Did you just make a noise?’
Semari was looking at Janaxia with interest, the mind-speaking something she found fascinating, with Stathis having to regularly stop her harassing Janaxia into using it.
Since that incident on the underworld sea, I have been bereft of a voice. I sincerely hope you will find a solution at the first opportunity
Her tone, even without actual speech, was accusatory. Well, it had been sort of Stathis’ fault, although given the alternative of a giant sea monster attacking, it had been the better choice. She helped Janaxia back up, before carefully lassoing the sword, noticing that it seemed a little duller than before. Parth looked at the pile of copper with a pained expression, clearly unhappy about leaving money behind, even if it was literally not worth the trouble of carrying.
‘Sorry. Feel free to take it if you want, but it’s too damn heavy. I’m sure we’ll make it up soon enough, if the stories about Redcastle are true. Especially because Janaxia is letting us stay at her place, so we’ll make some savings there.’
Parth still looked heartbroken, but managed to tear herself away from the money, joining them outside.
The journey had been uneventful, almost boringly so, with only a few bandit encounters to liven up the travel, the main problem being rounding them up and finding anyone that cared enough to deal with them. At least undead were nice and easy, smash them and it was done. They’d heard about the dungeon in the last village, a recent earthquake revealing it, the monsters within slowly shambling out to trouble the locals. There hadn’t been any reward, unfortunately, although stories of it should be good for at least a few drinks, even if the “wealth” had turned out to be mostly worthless.
Walking around dragging a sword on a rope felt a bit silly, but it was better than dealing with whatever strange cursed stuff it bore. The ongoing clanking coming from behind her was somewhat distracting but with the strong, warm, sunlight streaming through the trees surrounding them, it was almost pleasant, as Parth started whispering softly to a tree.
Stathis squinted at the sun, hoping she just meant heavy clouds, but the sky was a brilliant blue, hot enough to make her armour uncomfortable. ‘Anywhere nearby?’
Parth pushed her hand against the tree, presumably interrogating it further, frowning as she listened. ‘Above. Fast.’
Considering it was a tree, “fast” was likely not that much of a threat. What would a tree consider as “darkness” anyway? Evil loggers? There was a long, awkward pause, as imminent doom failed to materialise. Stathis shaded her eyes, looking up, some oddly-shaped bird flying high above them. ‘Anything useful?’ It was hard to tell if Parth was still in communion with the tree, or had fallen asleep while standing. Eventually, Parth shook her head.
As they didn’t seem to be in any obvious danger of attack, it was probably safe to move on. And whatever evil it could sense was probably just Janaxia, anyway. If they kept a good pace, they could be within sight of Redcastle by nightfall.
As they walked, Stathis trying to ignore the perpetual grating ringing of the sword behind her. It had been a long time since she’d been to Redcastle, her memories mostly of endless social events, interspersed with squabbling with her sister. And the two of them slipping out to see the actually interesting parts of the city, a rare alliance, and one that had been educational. Well, at least until they’d been caught, and gotten in a lot of trouble, their tutors being highly disapproving of such self-directed learning. The place was supposed to have calmed down a bit since then, more nobility moving in and fancying the place, all posh tea rooms, balls and the inevitable shady stuff that nobility got up to. Well, it would keep Janaxia out of trouble. Well, trouble involving demons and darkness, there was likely still rather a lot of more mundane trouble she could get into.
Several hours later, the forest finally ended, without any evil having swooped down upon them. Ahead of them were the low, dusty mountains and plateaus that Redcastle bordered, originally build to protect against ravaging monsters swarming into the fertile plains. Although the thick pillar of smoke was new, a black column rising up from just behind the city.
‘Uh, you know anything about that?’ Stathis asked.
Janaxia gestured breezily, as though it were of no more concern than a servant bringing the wrong cake.
Some minor incident, I’m sure. The Black Casket of Zakran was damaged or somesuch
‘Isn’t that supposed to be sealing a great and ancient evil or something? That sounds pretty bad, and demons are always a pain to fight. Any idea what happened?’
She shrugged, apparently unconcerned about the dangers. I have heard of a few minor problems, a few disruptions caused by petty demons bursting in at inconvenient times, that sort of thing. A bit of excitement, almost!
‘Demons sound a bit more than just “exciting”! Some of them can be pretty nasty.’
Semari bounded by, having run out of trees to clamber up. ‘They fly, right? I wanna fly one!’
‘OK, don’t do that. Just punch them please, that’ll work better.’
Semari made a rude noise. ‘No fun! We going to meet Janaxia’s family? Are they all evil and mean like she is?’
My family are, fortunately, busy with other affairs. And most dislike the Redcastle house, for some reason. So it will be just us. And some staff, of course. It will be nice to have some properly cooked food for a change!
If it was all going on her family tab, Stathis wasn’t going to complain. Probably had a nice wine cellar as well, although if Janaxia was anything to judge them by, there would probably be a monster in there. Still, if nobles were still visiting, the place couldn’t be that dangerous, the more titles someone had, the further from actual danger they generally stayed.