Saturday, November 5, 2016
There was a small mountain range on the western edge of the Re-Estize Kingdom. A pass ran through it, which one could still cross with some difficulty, but for the most part it formed a natural barrier which also marked the borders of the Kingdom and its neighbor, the Agrand Republic.
E-Asenal was the last major city in the Kingdom before that mountain range. From there, one could travel north and west into the mountains, before descending again into the a great swamp. Beyond that, the land was flat and open plains, with a road leading to the capital of the Agrand Republic, which was built up against the side of a mountain.
Evening had come hours before, and it had given way to the shroud of night. The stars twinkled in the skies above, but their light was washed out by that of the full moon.
It shone on the land below, and the grass on the plains swayed in the night breeze. Said breeze swept over a group of six people on top of a hillock, seated on flat rocks around a campfire.
But what were half a dozen people doing out in the open and at night? After all, not every corner of the Republic was safe for people to walk after sunset, even if most of its denizens were nominally loyal to the Dragon Lords which ruled this land.
A closer look at them revealed the answer -- they possessed well-maintained wargear, yet there was no unifying style of dress or any insignia among them, which ruled out the possibility that they might be proper soldiers of some sort.
In other words, they were adventurers.
"Brrr," one of them shivered as the cold wind pierced his thick clothing like it was not there. His name was Julian Galdo, a human male -- humans were a rarity in the demihuman-dominated Agrand Republic -- with blond hair, fair skin and blue eyes. He looked to be in his late twenties, and a light stubble dusted the chin of his handsome face.
He wore a suit of mail underneath his sturdy leather clothes -- clearly mithril, given how light and delicate the links were -- though his bandolier and pack were set aside, given that he was resting with his companions.
My companions, huh, Julian thought as he looked around himself. There were five others seated around the campfire, their faces lit by the warm glow of the flames.
To his left was Arctos, the party's ranger cum scout. He was a Winter Wolf Beastman with a pelt of pure white. He typically concealed it under a deep green cloak when he had to be stealthy (which was often). Arctos was short -- barely taller than Julian, which was unusual since Beastmen tended to be much more physically imposing than regular humans -- but he made up for it with an irrepressible energy. His animated motions and motor mouth reminded people of a yappy little dog that barked excitedly at everything.
Currently, he was rambling on about some topic or other, probably to make up for the fact that he would be deathly silent on the prowl later on. Arctos could be serious when the situation called for it, but now was not the time. He favored kukris -- his were enchanted to cause grievous bleeding with even the slightest graze -- but they were securely strapped somewhere about his person.
Beside Arctos was Pardus, a Panther Beastman who seemed like the polar opposite of the wolf-man. He was tall where Arctos was short, muscular where Arctos was slim, his fur was jet-black where Arctos' was snow-white, he was quiet where Arctos was noisy... but he had the same friendly look in his emerald eyes as Arctos did, and that was all that mattered to Julian.
As a dread commando, a profession which was essentially a warrior cum skirmisher, Pardus was trained in both stealth and combat. The armor he wore seemed to unify those disparate philosophies; it was a set of enchanted full plate that provided excellent protection against just about any form of physical attack, but its mithril components were light and cunningly fitted so as to reduce any impediment to physical action. It was also tinted a navy blue, since pure black was actually quite bad for not being seen. Of course, he could not do much about his black pelt, but that was what the armor -- and its camouflaging enchantment -- was for.
His helmet lay at his feet, while his spear stuck straight up from the ground, within easy reach.
To Pardus' left and directly opposite Julian was Nishiru Juju, a stout-looking Lizardman who was a druid and their healer. The flickering flames of the campfire twinkled in the gleam of his brown scales. Said scales were painted with tribal designs of unknown provenance; apparently they provided some sort of mystic protection or invoked some sort of shamanistic blessing on him. The brand of the traveller stood out over his heart; a sign of a free spirit... or an outcast.
Though his thick hide was the equivalent of light armor, he supplemented it with a pair of sturdy dragonscale bracers and dragonscale greaves. His sword-club and fighting staff lay on the ground beside him, though they were formalities at best. As a druid, the world itself was his weapon.
Reaching into the flames with his bare hands was Muk-tuk, a Kobold of Flame Dragon lineage. He was reptilian in appearance and had scales like Nishiru, but his were ruby red and gleamed in the firelight. They apparently granted him some form of flame resistance, because he was squatting next to the fire with his hands thrust within it, slowly turning one of several skewers of hare meat in the fire to cook it thoroughly. He was easily the shortest member of their group, but given his formidable sorcery, he might well be the most powerful.
The leather sleeves of his robes were pulled up to avoid singing them in the flames, and his bandoliers of potions and reagents were in a pile at the base of the stone where he sat. They were accompanied by a mage's staff, a crossbow and a case of bolts, for those situations where magic missiles were not warranted.
Finally, to Julian's right was Igni Bridgestone. He was a hulking giant of a Dwarf, which meant that he was about five feet tall. Where Pardus called to mind the image of a guerilla warrior, Igni was the very definition of heavy infantry. His limbs bulged with sinew and muscle, and his face was half-covered by a luxurious blond beard, whose lower ends were woven into thick, rope-like braids which fed into a bag within his breastplate.
Speaking of which, Igni wore extremely heavy plate armor whose joints were so cunningly articulated that there was no need to reinforce them with chain. It appeared to be made of some kind of enchanted and polished basaltic rock, given its lustre and the faint sparkles within. The two tower shields (they were as tall as he was) that he wielded leaned against each other behind him, like a pair of cards forming a pyramid. They were rectangular in shape and made of the same glossy black mineral as his armor. Even a strong Beastman like Pardus might have had trouble simply lifting and moving with that sort of gear, but Dwarves were low to the ground and built like fireplugs. Their stubby limbs might mean they moved slowly, but almost nothing could stop them once they got up to speed.
Igni turned to Julian, his eyes twinkling and the hints of a smile visible through his prodigious whiskers.
"Copper for your thoughts, lad?" he asked. His voice was gravelly, but kind, and he seemed concerned about his human companion. "Seems your heart's elsewhere."
"A little, yes," Julian replied with a smile of his own. "It's our last run together, after all. I'm going to miss you guys."
"Aww, isn't that sweet. Well, tender heart like that, it's no wonder you got the pretty kitty and all those kids, eh? How many is it now, ten? Twenty? Damn, how long was it since you got married, anyway? No, wait, how long since the two of you started popping them? I'll bet you were right eager to show her the ins and outs of marriage, eh?"
Arctos rose to his feet and began a series of pelvic thrusts into an invisible lover with exaggerated rapidity. Julian blushed, and joined the others in a hearty chuckle before Pardus reached up and pulled the wolf-man down.
"Marriage is one thing you'll never have to worry about, Arctos," the tiger-man said in a low, quiet voice that seemed to rumble like distant thunder. His tone might have been taken for menace, except that Pardus had a serene smile on his face and his eyes brimmed with affability.
"Yep, he's a better man than me. Truth be told, I'm kinda sad to see you go, Jules, but eh, you know how life is. It goes on... much like your family tree. How many did you have again?"
"Not nearly enough, I'd imagine," Muk-tuk said as he replaced one skewer in the fire with another. "But can you support them all after this? Especially after you quit the job..."
Julian pressed his lips flat. The Kobold did have a point. Adventuring paid a lot, even if most of the profits ended up being funnelled back into training or buying better gear. Just the payment for an average task could feed a large family for life, and some adventurers had personal panoplies that were worth more than entire towns by themselves.
Logically, he should have continued adventuring. That way, his family would be set for life.
Still, adventurers commanded those high fees for a reason. The adventuring life was dangerous, and even a seemingly easy task could become a bloodbath if their intelligence was bad or if they were unlucky. Then there was the fact that the adventurers often left their homes behind for extended periods, which was not conducive to a regular lifestyle.
That was why this would be the last job Julian would take as an adventurer. Truth to be told, he had an ample amount saved up, and all he wanted to do now settle down with his wife and kids and live a peaceful life with them.
"The sea will provide, I imagine," Nishiru murmured from across the fire. "Or at least, the Sea Lizardmen and the Mermen will. They're always willing to trade fish, pearls and so on for items they can't make on land."
The two species Nishiru mentioned, the Sea Lizardmen and the Mermen, lived in the ocean adjoining the Agrand Republic and the Kingdom. They had sworn fealty to the Dragon Lords and the Council, and quite a bit of trade took place between them and the land-dwellers.
The items of which Nishiru spoke referred to articles of metal. Given the complete inability to work metal underwater, they were incredibly valuable to the Sea Lizardmen and the Mermen. This was particularly true for the latter, who could not move on land at all. In contrast, the amphibious Sea Lizardmen, who could at least spend a few hours on shore before they had to return to the water to rehydrate.
"While we're talking about your children... how about Mira?" Pardus asked. "You know she's been asking me about training her. While I don't see anything wrong in teaching the daughter of an old friend..."
Pardus' voice trailed off, but his piercing green eyes remained fixed on Julian. Mira was Julian's daughter, and she was of an age when she might become an adventurer in her own right.
On the one hand, Julian wanted to keep her safe, but on the other, he could not deny that the adventurer's life had its perks. Perhaps, if someone could watch over her...
A voice interrupted his train of thought.
"Well, we can worry about that later," Muk-tuk chimed in. The last of the rabbit-meat skewers were done, and he began passing them out to the others. "I'll go over the task again while we eat."
Once the sound of chewing filled the air, the Kobold drew himself up and began speaking:
"Frankly speaking, there's not much to be said. This is basically a milk run; go into the swamp, look for the big creature in there, and learn about it and where it lairs or ranges. No need to fight it; the cloak just wants to know about it."
"Cloak" in this case referred to the all-concealing cloaks which their employers (or agents thereof) wore to meetings with the adventurers. Adventurers were sometimes given very sensitive tasks due to their unique skillsets, so secrecy was vital for the people employing them. Knowledge was power, and they did not want to give their rivals power over them.
"No need to fight? Scouting only? Then why do we need anybody else besides Arc? He could probably do this in his spare time," Igni said in between mouthfuls. "Unless you want to see how useful I am at bashing through terrain."
"Don't say that, Igni. You know what they say, the easy jobs never are. Frankly speaking, I'd feel a lot safer with you guys around. Also, you can thank Julian for all that," Muk-tuk said as he gestured to the man. Julian looked up with a deer-in-headlights expression as everyone else looked at him.
"He arranged to bring us all in on this job so we could split the payout six ways. Even fought for a bit more so we'd get a decent amount," Muk-tuk added.
Muk-tuk and Julian typically handled negotiations with potential employers. As the brains of the group, Muk-tuk was adept at risk assessment, while Julian had a way with words, which made him ideal for the task of bargaining over payment.
The others blinked at him for a moment, and then smiles broke out on their faces.
"Well, thank you, Dad," Arctos grinned.
"Good to know you were looking out for us until the end," Pardus nodded.
"It's a shame you have to go," Nishiru said.
"You're a good lad. I hope you won't be too busy being a family man to hoist a stein with us sometime," Igni replied, with a slap on Julian's back that nearly knocked him over.
"Indeed. But let us discuss what we'll do next. The creature was spotted at night, which is why we waited until after the sun set to go in. Once it's active, it'll leave tracks, and we can follow them. It'll probably have a big lair too, considering its size, and if it's really that big, it'll be very noticeable while it's hunting enough to fill its belly. We can also count on it coming home near dawn, if it's really nocturnal, so we'll have another chance at spotting it."
The group nodded at Muk-tuk's summation.
"I can cast [Animal Command] to use any local creatures as scouts, and [Nature Speech] to speak with any plants and animals," Nishiru suggested.
"I can handle tracking and guiding us across the swamp," Arctos added.
"Meanwhile, I'll just be dead weight," Igni muttered.
Julian chuckled at that.
"You mean, like the rest of us? Don't worry about it. At least you can see in the dark. Besides, if things go really bad, we'll be glad to have your strength."
"Can't cast spells when a monster's snacking on your face," Muk-tuk said between mouthfuls of rabbit. "Pardus has pretty keen senses too, and an eye for ambushes. Meanwhile, Julian can cover for anyone if there's a shortfall. Apart from my magic, I can help him identify whatever it is we're dealing with."
"Seems about right," Igni nodded.
"Which reminds me, don't forget that we're here to observe, not fight. That means Igni and Pardus might not have much to do, but hey, at least you're still getting paid," Julian said.
"There'll be chances for that in future. This is our last run together, lad. Let's make it a good one."
The Dwarf raised his fist in salute, and so did everyone else.
After they finished eating, the adventurers put out the campfire and buried their leavings. Then they strapped on and adjusted their equipment.
As Julian returned from answering the call of nature, he saw the others huddling together. Pardus looked up and so did the others, and Julian was confused.
"Oh, nothing much," Arctos said. "Who'll go first, that sort of thing."
"Yes, like how I'll be bringing up the rear," Igni said. "Unless you want to be wading through mud all the way."
With his heavy armor and tremendous strength, Igni was guaranteed to plow straight through everything in his path. Of course, that meant he would leave a semi-liquid trail in his wake, and the going would be much slower as a result.
Muk-tuk outlined their marching order, which placed Igni at the back of the group as their rear guard and defense against ambush. Julian would be in front of him, covering the group with his bow, while Muk-tuk and Nishiru would be in the center of the group, screened by everyone else. Arctos would lead the way, and his keen senses would be backed by those of Pardus.
It was a formation designed to play to their strengths, though Julian had always thought of formations as applying to groups that were larger than half a dozen members.
"Gear check, we move out when we're ready."
In response to Arctos' call, everyone inspected their personal equipment, from weapons, armor, backpacks and bandoliers to the dabs of firefly extract -- it glowed in the dark -- used for signalling in the dark. Where it was inconvenient for them to check their own gear, they helped each other out.
They had done this countless times before, but it paid to be careful. There would be no time for regrets once trouble found them.
Nishiru was the first to announce that he was done, being that he had little in the way of equipment to worry about. Affirmatives from the other party members poured in as they verified that they had everything they needed within easy reach.
"Okay, good. Form up and let's go."
Saying that, Arctos took his place at the head of the group. Everyone else fell into place behind him, but as Julian filed into position, he glanced to the moon, and froze.
"What's wrong, lad?" Igni said from beside him.
"No, I... right, this is going to sound weird, but I thought I saw something in the moon just now..."
The others turned around to look at the full moon, as did Julian. However, none of them noticed anything which stood out to them. Julian frowned, and squinted.
The tiny silhouette he had seen against the light of the moon was gone now.
"Strange, I was pretty sure I saw something..."
The phantom image of someone hanging in the air, like a barely-visible mote in a god's eye, replayed itself in his mind.
"Focus, Julian," Nishiru gently chided. "This is our last run as a team. Don't let it be the last one in your life."
The thought of his family -- his beloved wife and his adorable children -- weeping for him banished the prior one, and Julian shuddered.
He could not let that happen. He would not.
Gritting his teeth, Julian replied, "Yes, I'll pull myself together."
He cleared his mind, and pointed his eyes forward.
The swamp seemed to loom before him. Its trees grew close together, their roots forming a treacherous tangle as they intertwined through the waterlogged soil which sustained them. Their canopies overlapped, greedily hogging the light and shrouding the interior in a half-light that was pitch-black after the sun set.
It was a stereotypically foreboding place, but there was some truth to the rumors. Swamps were places where life and death came easily. In other words, it was a dangerous place, filled with all manner of creatures who were adapted to living in such an environment.
And now, he was going in there.
A familiar blend of anticipation and panic filled him. It would be wrong to say that he was not afraid, but he had his comrades all around him, and that was a great boost to his morale. More importantly, he knew that there were people counting on him just as he was pinning his hopes on others, and the knowledge of that stiffened his resolve.
"Ready check," Arctos said, just loud enough for the rest to hear.
"One," went Igni.
"Two," said Julian.
"Three," Muk-tuk said.
"Four," Nishiru continued.
"Five," Pardus grunted.
"Let's move," Arctos said, and the group marched forward.