Our 2nd poll is one that actually matters. It's going to determine what characters accompany Serena for the next part of the story.
https://strawpoll.com/wbc6kaxx [CLOSED AT 3/5]
The Gobo Gang would pair up Serena with a group of orphan goblins who looked after her while she was unconscious. ( Of course, they expect a favor in return for this clearly benevolent act.)
The Huntress would pair Serena up with an expert hunter and tracker, who is convinced to help Serena find her way. ( But it's unclear how helpful she'll be, since she's so eccentric.)
Serena felt something wet on her cheek. That's what woke her up. She shifted uncomfortably, slowly coming to her senses. Her eyes opened. She stared at the wooden rafters of whatever building she was in. Feeling that wet sensation again, she looked to her left and saw a pig licking her cheek.
" Agh!" She shouted, quickly scooting away from the filthy animal. It squealed in surprise at her sudden flight and ran towards a sleeping group of pigs, quickly waking them up and causing them to rampage around, before they ran out of a large doorway.
" Ugh... gross." She said as she wiped the saliva off of her face. She looked around more at her surroundings.
She was sitting on a wooden floor with straw scattered all around it. There was a pillow where she had been laying, and a small blanket that she had thrown aside.
" I'm in... someone's barn? How the heck did I get here?" Serena asked herself. She went to stand up, but immediately found herself falling against the wall. Her legs were shaking, and she struggled for a good few minutes to stand, before letting herself slide to the floor.
" Okay," She said, panting. " I guess I'm still pretty weak. Not much I can do about that."
Sighing, she half crawled, half scooted past the spot where she had been sleeping so that she could see more of the barn. Getting nearer to the entrance, she could see that it was getting late outside. Seeing a lantern hanging from a hook nearby, she crawled her way to it and began lifting herself up towards it. Outstretching her hand, she almost had it in her grasp when she heard a loud clanking noise behind her, followed by a splash. Quickly turning her head, Serena saw a little boy standing in the doorway. He had dropped a bucket of water upon seeing her.
" Uh... hey there, little guy. Mind telling me where I am?"
He immediately turned around and ran off.
" Alright, then. Good talk. Guess I'll just wait here next to the pig shit."
And that she did.
Eventually, someone did come. Serena was crawling towards the barn doors when a big, burly man stepped in front her.
" Hi. Are you gonna run away from me, too?"
He laughed at this before extending a hand to her.
" Sorry about Tommy. I told him to come get me if you were awake."
She accepted his hand, and he pulled her up to her feet, one arm under her shoulder for support.
" Thanks. So, can I ask how exactly I got here?"
He answered as he walked her out.
" I was coming back from selling some stuff in town, when I decided to take a back-road to get home quicker. And wouldn't you know it, while I'm riding down said road, I find an unconscious girl lying in the middle of it. You were really out cold. We've been letting you rest for three days now."
" Three days?!" She exclaimed in shock. " I was really out for that long? I must've really overdone it... thank you for doing this. I'm in no condition to even walk right now. I'd be pretty screwed if I was on my own."
" Don't even mention it." He said with a smile.
They came up to a farmhouse, and walked up to the porch. Opening the door, the farmer brought Serena inside.
The family watched in disbelief as Serena ravenously devoured another plate of food. She gulped down an entire glass of water within a minute, and then delicately wiped her mouth with a napkin. When she noticed them watching, she sheepishly grinned.
" So... Serena, where exactly are you from?" The farmer's wife, Marla, asked.
" My home is near Than'drellfal, out in the countryside. It's a very lovely place."
" Dad, what's than-dra-fall?" The son, Tommy, interjected.
" Than'drellfal, Tommy. It's a very big city, and a very important one to the elves. It's their capital, and a lot of big decisions are made there."
" That's right! And I happen to be one of the people that helps make those decisions!" Serena happily added.
They boy's eyes widened, but his father chuckled, assuming that she was just trying to spur his son's imagination.
" No, really; I am. I know I look a bit young, but I technically am a member of The Council. You don't have to be an old fart or be best friends with the King to get in. But it is kind of... complicated, since I'm not a member of any of the big families. My family isn't even a sister family to any of them. So I sort of represent... all of the smaller families. It's really hard to balance them all out, especially when they scramble for my attention."
" Well, in that case, what exactly is someone so important doing all the way out here?" The farmer questioned.
" Well," Serena began. " That's kind of complicated, too. I'm lost, you see, and let's just say that I got into a pretty bad fight. That's why you found me unconscious on the road."
The farmer and his wife looked at each other. They looked back at Serena.
" You'd have to go pretty far out of your way to end up here from Than'drellfal, even if you are lost." He said to her.
" What do you mean by that?" Serena asked, confused.
Marla came over and put a hand on Serena's shoulder.
" Sweetheart, you realize that you're on the eastern side of the Winterstone, right?"
Serena's face slowly twisted into an expression of shock when she finally realized the gravity of the distance she had traveled. Her home and Than'drellfal were located in the northwestern corner of the Realms. The Winterstone was almost directly in the center. If she had managed to travel that far in just one night...
" I'm on the other side of the fucking CONTINENT?!"
Serena stared up at the ceiling from the family's couch. It had grown late, and they had all went to sleep already. Only she lay awake now.
" I guess I really lost control with the Dragon Tears. How the hell am I gonna get home? My portals aren't working for some odd reason, either..."
She closed her eyes and sighed. Eventually, she fell asleep.
Serena awoke in the Dreamworld.
" Oh man, I really don't need this right now."
She reached out to make a platform as usual, but the Dreamworld didn't react to her will at all. She thrust her limbs in all directions, trying to make something, if anything, happen. Nothing did.
" Okay, this is bad. If I'm not in control here, then my magic must seriously be screwed up."
" Nothing is wrong with you, my dear." An echo-y voice called out from the clouds.
Serena whipped around in all directions, trying to find the source of this voice. Never before had someone pulled her into the Dreamworld. Whoever it was, they must have been extremely powerful.
" Who are you?" Serena shouted out in the infinite expanse. " Show yourself!"
" I have glimpsed a part of your destiny. Your fate. Do as I say, and when we next converse, I will fully reveal myself to you."
" Wait! My fate? What are you talking about?"
" Not the outcome. Only a section of the path to it. I know not who it is, but you must find an elf nearby that will act as your guide on your journey."
" Wait, what journey? My journey home? You're not exactly being specific."
" Alright, look; I don't exactly have all of the details, okay? all I know is that you need to find an elf. Go find them. I'm not your babysitter, Serena. Ask some people if they know any elves that are good trackers or something. Would you rather I not help you at all?"
" Uh... no?"
" Good. Then I'll hopefully see you soon."
Serena awoke. She sat up and looked out the window in the living room, where the morning light flooded in.
As she gazed outside, Serena only had one thought on her mind:
Who the hell had she been talking to?
Puzzled, the farmer and his family had woken up to find that Serena had disappeared. Going outside, he had turned around to look at the house, when he realized that she was on the roof of the porch, cross-legged. She was apparently deep in meditation. He had to call her names several times before she eventually awoke.
" Serena!" He finished, snapping her back to reality. She blinked several times and looked down at him.
" Oh! Sorry. I woke up early and decided to come out and enjoy the morning air. I haven't exactly gotten to relax like this in a while."
" Well, why don't you come on down? Breakfast is ready."
Obeying her grumbling stomach, Serena quickly blinked down and followed him inside.
After she was done eating, Serena pushed her plate away and decided to inquire about whoever she was supposed to find.
" So... I probably need to leave pretty soon, if not today. I'm really thankful for the hospitality that you've all given me. I'll make sure to try and find some way to compensate you when I get home. But for now, I need to find someone to help guide me. Is there anyone around here who I might be able to hire to do that?"
The farmer and his wife looked at each other. They seemed quite uncomfortable.
" Well..." He began. " There is... one person around here who might be willing to do that. She lives in the woods near town. But... I don't really know if it's a good idea for you to go to her."
" Why's that?"
" She's... strange, to say the least."
" Great. That's reassuring. Who exactly is she, though?"
" She's a hunter, but she has a really inflated ego, so she made up a title for herself that's supposed to sound intimidating or something. ' The Huntress,' like she's too good for a name like everyone else."
" And she's an elf!" Tommy interjected. His father gave him a sideways glance.
" Thanks, Tommy." He said, before turning back to Serena, who seemed much more interested now.
" But like I said, I don't know if it's a good idea. She just kind of does what she wants to. Not really sure whether or not she'll take a straightforward 'job' from you. But I can still take you, if you really want me to."
" I think I would."
He sighed, and got out of his chair.
Dropping her off in the center of the small town, the farmer gave Serena some final directions before heading off.
" Just take the road up that way," He said, pointing to a path that led into the forest. " It might take you a while, but you should be able to get there safe enough. There'll be a trail once you get out of town on the right side of the road. Follow that trail, and you'll end up at her house after maybe an hour's hike."
Serena shouldered the backpack that the family had given to her, full of supplies for her trip.
" Again, I have to thank you for all the help. I'd be really lost if it wasn't for you."
He winked at her.
" Don't mention it, kid. And good luck!" He yelled to her, spurring his groundbolds into motion. His cart thundered off back in the direction of the farm. Serena took in a deep breath as she watched him leave, and slowly exhaled.
" Okay. Hopefully, this is the person that the voice told me to meet. I wonder if they're still listening... Hey, Dreamworld voice! If I'm on the wrong track here, you better let me know now!"
She waited for an answer, but only got the strange glances of people passing her on the street as they walked by.
" Guess not. Well, here I go."
Leaving town, Serena trekked toward the supposed trail to the Huntress' home. She followed the dirt road, passing through the outskirts of town and the odd farmhouse every now and then, before reaching open plains. She saw a forest on the horizon, and rationalized that that was her destination. Growing nearer to the forest, she decided to rest at the top of a grassy knoll. Sitting down against a rock, she opened up the backpack and took a few sips out of a canteen.
She wiped her mouth, looking down at the rolling grasslands. She suddenly saw a large area of the ground darken. This darkness seemed to move, and for a moment, she panicked, and thought the assassin had reappeared to attack her. She scrambled to her feet, when she noticed a large shape in the sky above. Looking upwards, Serena's eyes widened when she realized that she was looking at some gigantic avian beast. Looking back at the ground, she now understood that it was just the creature's shadow, and breathed a sigh of relief. She sat back and relaxed, gazing up as the animal flew over.
" I wonder what kind of animal that is? I know it isn't a dragon, but it sure does remind me of Ridge... I wonder what he's doing right now. I hope he's out looking for me. Although I don't know how in the world he's gonna find me."
She sat in silence for a while before getting to her feet. She continued onward, towards the forest. Once she reached its edge, she wasn't walking for long before she found a trail. Trusting the farmer, she took it, and began to journey deeper into the forest.
Noticing a disgusting smell, Serena turned a corner on the trail to find a wolf's head plunged onto the end of a spike that was embedded into the ground. Covering her nose, she theorized that she was either on the right track or she had entered into the territory of a goblin tribe. She pressed forward.
The sun had began to set, and the dense woods plunged Serena into a murky twilight. She held one hand up at this point, a stream of fire emitting from it as a light source. Flames danced across the underbrush as her boots crunched against the dirt.
" Ugh... How long have I been walking for? This is ridiculous!"
" Long enough." A voice cooed from next to her ear.
Serena screamed and stumbled forward, the flame in her hand forming a fireball that she tossed backwards at whoever was there. She turned around, forming another one, but no one was there. Confused, Serena looked around for a moment, before being tapped on the shoulder. She whipped around, where a person in a deep cowl stood.
" Boo!" the figure yelled at Serena, raising their hands in the air like a ghost. Serena stood, eyebrows furrowed in confusion at the strange spectacle.
The figure put their arms down and began laughing now, and Serena nervously laughed herself, slowly backing away from the stranger. Eventually, the laughing fit ended.
" Oh, man, that was a good one. I've been trailing you for quite a while now. What exactly are you doing out here?" The figure asked, arms crossed.
" Well, I'm looking for a hunter that lives around here. I'm gonna assume that's you, isn't it?"
The figure cocked their head.
" That depends on what you want with this hunter."
" I want to hire her. I need some help with something. Maybe this hunter would like to talk more at her own home?" Serena asked, waiting.
" Maybe that huntress has no need of your money."
" Maybe I can offer her other... things."
" Do you maybe wanna reword that?"
Serena was confused until she realized that she had said and blushed.
" I meant... like, something else of value. Like treasure or something. Not... y'know."
The figure shrugged.
" Works for me. Come on."
Serena was led by lantern through the woods, until she and the stranger came upon a cabin nestled at the end of the trail. They walked up to the door, where the stranger practically beat on when she knocked.
" I'm fucking coming!" Came an angry, muffled voice from inside. Serena heard a few heavy footsteps, and a kobold answered the door.
" Why the fuck are you knocking so loud?" He demanded.
" Because I felt like it, Phil. And be nice. We have a guest."
He looked past the stranger and saw Serena, eyeing her up and down.
" Who the fuck is she?"
" That's what we're about to find out, you jackass. Now move."
Inside, Serena sat down on a couch in the living room while she waited for the pair to join her. The stranger came in, and took off their cowl. Serena gasped and stood up. A female elf now stood before her, looking at Serena like she was insane. Her hair was an odd, dark-green color, on the verge of being completely black. She tied it back into a ponytail and walked over to Serena.
" Soooo... are you gonna pick your jaw up off the floor? Have you never seen another woman before? Or am I just that pretty?" She smiled and batted her eyelashes.
" No... it's just... I was supposed to meet you. I'm sure of it. Or, I guess I'll be sure of it soon."
" What the fuck are you talking about?" The huntress asked her.
" It's... kind of a long story."
" Well then make it short. It's not that hard."
" Oh, uh... okay. The short version is that I need help finding my way back to Than'drellfal. I kinda got... lost, and we'll leave it at that. Do you think you could bring me there?"
She laughed, before realizing that Serena was being completely serious.
" Oh, wow, okay. You realize how much you're gonna owe me if I do this for you, girl? Wait, what the hell is your name?"
" Serena. And I realize that it's probably... a lot. But if you do it, I guarantee that I can get the Elven Council themselves to pay you."
" Hmm..." said the Huntress, stroking her chin. " Those jerk-offs, huh? I've never really clashed well with figures of authority... What exactly would they be willing to pay?"
" Probably anything you want." Serena said, being completely honest.
The Huntress rubbed her hands together greedily. She turned, and yelled towards another room.
" Phil! Start packing shit! We're going on a trans-continental journey, baby!"
" Fucking great!" He yelled back at her.
The Huntress turned back to Serena.
" You can sleep on the couch. We're gonna need some time to figure out the logistics of this shit. Probably a day or two."
This time was different. Instead of the void, Serena had skipped all of that process and was standing in a very elaborate room, that reminded her of the Council's own meeting room. A simple wooden table decorated the center of the room, with a chair on each side. Serena sat down and waited. Soon after, she felt a presence on the edge of her mind.
" I do believe that you're on the right path, as of now. "
" You said that you'd tell me who you were. Let's just get that part over with, okay?"
" Yeesh, someone's a bit grouchy. Fine, then."
In the chair across from her, a body began to form out of the air. Serena tensed up as it finished, watching a large, reptilian tail sway back and forth above its owner's head. A woman now sat before her, who stared back at Serena with a seductive smile on her face. The combination of the scales on her skin, her golden eyes, and the intense Magic radiating across the table told Serena that she was looking at a dragon.
" Okay... so which one are you? I'd think that Vlaurunga would be way more direct... and Yvander... well, I don't even know anything about that. Which means that you're...?" Serena waited for the divine to finish her sentence.
" Quintara Lotus, yes."
Serena slumped back in her chair.
" Oh. Oh wow. This is incredible."
" Yes, I know I am! But we have a lot to discuss. So let's get to it, shall we?"
" What exactly do you mean?" Serena asked, trying to ponder what the Dragon Aspect could possibly want with her.
" As I said before, I've seen a bit of your fate using my Magic. But so far, only a small part of the future has been revealed to me."
" An all-powerful dragon can't see everything?"
" I'm not sure if that was you being a smart-ass or not, but I'll let it slide either way. No, I can't. But what I have seen is very interesting. At least, to me, that is."
" Are you gonna share any of what you've seen with me?"
She clapped her hands together.
" Of course not! That would ruin the entertainment factor of it. But I will guide you on the right path through it. I don't exactly want to see anything happen to you."
Serena grew suspicious at this last line.
" Why would you, Quintara Lotus, be showing any kind of specific attention to a random person like me?"
The dragon rolled her eyes.
" Sweetheart, you can't seriously think that there's nothing... 'special' about you, right? You're not random at all. In fact, where the hell is all that Magic that's supposed to be inside you? I can barely feel it."
Serena rubbed her wrists under the table. Quintara eyed her suspiciously, and then her eyes were drawn to Serena's neck.
" Take that collar off, right now."
" What? No!" Serena yelped, clutching a hand around her neck.
Quintara Lotus stood up. Her tail curling up in the air behind her.
" Do not defy me, girl. And use your head. We're in the Dreamworld. Nothing is permanent here. So do as I command, and remove that thing from your body."
Serena quietly undid the strap and put the silver-silk collar on the table. She crossed her arms.
" Hmm... still rather weak. You have more of those things on you somewhere, don't you? Take 'em off."
" Are you really gonna make me do this? I really don't want to..."
" Just what are you so scared of, Serena?"
" Well... I only ever really feel comfortable when I have all of them on. I can't really... control my Magic otherwise. I don't want to accidentally hurt people."
Quintara shook her head.
" Once again, I'd like to point out that we are in the Dreamworld."
" Okay, Okay! Fine. Just gimme a second."
Serena took off both of her gloves, revealing a band of silver-silk on each wrist. She slowly took each of them off, and threw them on the table with the collar.
" There. Are you happy? What exactly is this for?"
The dragon smiled.
" There we go. I can actually kind of feel some of that power now!" She moved to behind her chair. " Alright, we're gonna play a little game now."
" What? Are you serious?"
" Don't worry, it's very simple! All you have to do is touch me. I don't care if you do it with your finger or something, or if you just shoot a spell at me. Anyway you feel. Okay?"
" Uh... sure."
" Great! Then let's begin."
" Wait, I-" Serena tried to say as she stood up, but she was suddenly blasted backwards by an incredibly intense force.
Tumbling and rolling, Serena came to a stop and tried to stand, breathing heavily. She looked at Quintara Lotus, who was now much farther away.
" You didn't say you were gonna attack me!" She angrily yelled.
" Oh, but I didn't! In fact, I didn't do anything. I'm just standing here."
" That's bullshit! Wait... unless..."
Serena quickly formed a large fireball in her hand and lobbed it towards Quintara Lotus. The roaring projectile hit a certain point in the air, and quickly dissipated as if it were water evaporating.
" I knew it! You put up some kind of magic barrier! You're cheating at your own game."
" Again, I did not. Look, I'll even come closer to make it easier for you."
As she walked around the table and came closer, Serena felt something strange. She shot a few arcane missiles at the dragon this time, each of them coming from different angles. They all seemed to cancel out after they hit a certain point, but this time much sooner than the fireball.
" It's moving with her! But if that's the case... is that barrier just coming off of her body?"
Quintara Lotus smiled. She stopped her approach.
" There's only one way to find out. I have to get closer."
Serena cautiously began approaching the dragon. She closed the distance step by step, until she eventually started meeting resistance. At first it just became more difficult to move forward, but she was soon being literally pushed back, struggling against some invisible force as she slid backwards. She stood back for a moment, before trying something a lot stupider.
" Let's see where this gets me..."
She took a deep breath, and then charged forward as fast as she could. She powered through the earlier resistance, and got within meters of Quintara Lotus. As she got closer, she felt a gut-wrenching sensation. The entire front of her body suddenly burst, skin and clothing flaking off and being destroyed just like the spells she fired earlier.
Serena wailed in shock and pain as she was forcefully blown back to her starting position. Laying on her back for several minutes, she could do nothing but whimper and tear up as she waited for her body to heal. Eventually, it did, and she shakily sat up. She wiped the tears from her eyes and glared at the dragon, who was sadistically smiling back at her. Quintara waved one of her fingers, and Serena's clothes were magically restored. She stood back up.
" What exactly do you expect me to do here? You've got an impenetrable shield of Magic around you. I literally can't do anything!"
" Well, you better start getting creative, or I'm going to keep coming closer. Do you want to relive that whole painful experience?"
Serena grew angry at this threat.
" Did you bring me here just to torture me?! What the hell do you want from me? I can't perform miracles! Wait... okay, nevermind, but still!"
" I've heard enough whining. Here I come."
She began slowly walking towards Serena, who almost automatically starting backpedaling while trying to think of a solution.
" Think, Serena, think! How the hell do I counteract a barrier like that? There's no I can silence her. I can't just keep throwing spells against it..."
She thought in silence for a moment, before coming to a sudden revelation.
" A Mana Shield! I can protect myself with a Mana Shield! Maybe if I make one strong enough, I'll be able to power through this crap. I can try to combine it with a Magic Shell, too. That would make it even more powerful. I think that's it!"
She ran backwards a good bit to give her time to cast the spell. Quintara seemed intrigued about what strategy Serena had finally come up with, and stood still while she waited.
Serena stood up, an aura of cobalt-blue Magic now shimmering around her. She confidently strode up to the edge of the dragon aspect's barrier, and tested her own against it, stepping over the invisible threshold. She immediately felt a force pushing against her barrier, and pushed back. As she advanced, the pressure against her shield increased, and Serena responded by extending it as far as she could outwards. She proceeded, step by step, until getting to the point of her last attempt.
At this point, she had begin to profusely sweat. Moving forward became increasingly difficult, to the point where she began sliding backwards on her feet, despite her best efforts to brace herself.
" Are you all tuckered out, dear? If you manage to make it over here, I promise that I'll restore all of that stamina that you've used up."
Serena looked up at the taunting dragon, now only meters away. She pushed her shield forward once more, trying her hardest to reach Quintara Lotus. Her boots scraped against the ground, and she started to slowly gain traction.
" There you go! Come on, just a little bit more now, sweetheart."
Serena gritted her teeth, and tried to take another step forward. A pounding sensation began in her head, like a hammer striking her skull. Visible cracks began to form on her shield from the intense pressure of the Magic emitting from the Dragon Aspect. She suddenly lurched forward, and desperately grabbed for part of the draping sleeve of Quintara's clothes. Her outstretched fingers almost grasped it, before her shield broke completely.
Serena flew into the air, every molecule in her body screaming out in pain. In the few brief seconds where she was able to keep her eyes open, she saw Quintara's form quickly disappear into the swirl of clouds as she was flung what seemed like miles away.
Serena slowly opened her eyes, to the dragon standing over her.
" Y'know, I have to say; that was quite impressive! Minus the part where you turned into a marshmallow, but still. Impressive."
She sat up and rubbed her eyes.
" What... what happened? Did I do it? I'm pretty sure I did."
" Unfortunately... no. But, you did get pretty close. Which is good enough for me."
Serena frowned, and got up off the couch. Realizing that she had been laying on a couch, she looked around, confused about her new whereabouts. She was in what appeared to be a lavishly decorated study. A bright fireplace burned on the wall opposite her, purple flames dancing and morphing into various shapes.
" Am I still...?"
" In the Dreamworld? Yes. I thought this might be a bit more relaxing after our little game."
Serena unconsciously felt around her neck, surprised to find the collar replaced. She checked her wrists, seeing that those had been returned as well.
" I took the liberty of restoring your clothes, again. I didn't have to worry about your body. It's quite miraculous, for a mortal."
" Thanks... I guess. So, now that we're done with that game, can you tell me where I'm supposed to go so I can get back to reality?"
" I can do even better. I'll show you."
" Wait, wha-" Serena said, tensing up as Quintara Lotus placed a thumb against her forehead. Serena's eyes rolled up into the back of her head as purple lines of Magic began to line her face. Serena witnessed a vision.
She saw several flashing images.
An aerial view of a coastline, with several small towns dotting it.
A bar with a sign decorated with a busty mermaid.
A crowd of oddly-shaped people, crowding around a table.
Flames seemingly floating on water, dancing high in the sky, with the outline of several sunken ships visible through the smoke.
Finally, she saw a large ship decorated with the insignia of the Elven Navy.
She collapsed onto the ground as Quintara released her. Voices assaulted her mind as she grasped the side of her head, trying to contain a scream.
" We need to talk about that girl."
" Get her out of the water!"
" I am sorry, Master!"
" That thing's been trailing us for a while..."
" He's dead."
" How do you know my name?"
" The elf women have been marked for death today!"
" You fucking spilled my spaghetti, asshat!"
" You honestly believe the six of you can stop me?"
The voices faded. Serena stared upwards at the ceiling from her position on the floor. Quintara looked at her with a quizzical expression on her face.
" Is something wrong?"
" Is something wrong? How about me getting the most painful mind-fucking of my life! You couldn't have just told me so I didn't have to hear all of those voices?"
" Voices? What voices? I didn't hear anything when I got that vision."
" Well they were pretty loud. I think I recognized some of them, but others... I have no idea who they were. My head really hurts right now."
" Strange... very strange. But did you see the different places?"
" Yeah, I think so. Awful lot of nautically themed stops in my future."
" There sure are. So, you got an idea of where to go now?"
" Uh... no? I didn't exactly see the names of anything I saw."
" Well then, here's my advice: take a boat trip home."
The following morning, Serena had a talk with her new guide.
" You just want me to take you to the nearest port? I mean, either way, this trip is gonna be long as hell. But I guess if you really want to..."
" Yes, I really do."
The Huntress narrowed her eyes.
" Any particular reason for changing your mind?"
" Call it a vision."
She rolled her eyes in response.
" Yeah. Sure. Whatever. Everything'll be ready in a few hours. We just have to rethink the route that we're gonna take now."
" Hey, I'm ready whenever you are."
She followed the Huntress outside as they prepared for the coming journey.
Lance closed the eyes of the dismembered ferryman. They had found the body, missing all of its limbs, leaning against the side of a tree near the shore. Barnaby watched from nearby.
" I don't think we have time for a burial," The gnome said. " Say a prayer or something for him, and then we need to get moving again. We have to cover as much ground as possible right now."
Lance nodded. He took Barnaby's advice and gave the man a quick prayer, and then they trudged back to the carriage.
The duo made the short trip back, where they entered the rear of the carriage. They found Roygo exactly where they had left him; smoking his pipe as he rested against one of the crates. The magic that he had used in their river crossing had exhausted him, and now he was stuck recuperating in the back with Argus and Vann. He looked up as they entered.
" So, what did you find that made you stop?"
" We found the ferryman." Lance explained. " They must've killed him almost as soon as they landed. Sick bastards are gonna get what's coming to 'em when we catch up."
" Let's not get too hot-headed yet, Lance." Barnaby said. " Save that energy for when we get there. Speaking of which, why don't we check the map?"
Argus brought it out from behind a crate, and spread it out on the floor so that everyone could see. Roygo groaned and leaned forward to get a better look.
" They haven't moved yet. I bet they're definitely at a meeting point. Now is the perfect opportunity for us to make up for some lost time. Let's get a move on, boys."
The two of them left, and got back into the driver's seat with the map. Lance nudged the tarandors forward, towards an actual road and not the muddy ground they had been on.
It took a full day of travelling for them to reach the trading post where the mercenaries had stopped. It didn't take them long to realize that something had happened there. Forgoing stealth, they drove straight up to the building.
Coming to a stop, Lance was immediately alerted by think trails of smoke still coming off of the debris. Several of the walls had collapsed outwards, and burnt rubble had been spread around outside by the wind. They duo got up, and hopped off the carriage. Lance narrowed his eyes as he looked around.
" Something's not right. It looks like there was a battle here. And very recently..."
" You think your sister could've escaped?"
" Maybe. I hope that's the case, but I don't wanna get optimistic yet. I'll look around a bit inside. You see if my dad is good enough to come help."
Barnaby nodded, and began walking towards the back. Lance drew his scimitar in one hand, and advanced towards the front door.
He cautiously entered the building, scanning his surroundings for any movement. He moved towards the center of the lobby, where he saw something on the desk there. Getting closer, he saw that it was a bottle with liquid still inside. He assumed it was alcohol.
" It's still half-full. And there's no dust or anything. They were definitely here recently, so what happened? I have to keep looking."
He saw an open doorway on the far wall, and moved through it. Something gleamed on the floor, and he knelt down to inspect it.
" Blood." He muttered to himself, looking behind him at the thin line of it that he had missed.
" Someone was attacked, and fled, from the hallway towards the lobby. There's no body, so maybe they escaped."
He followed the trail of blood deeper down the hallway, until he came upon the largest pool of it, on the edge of an area that had been completely destroyed.
" Scorch marks... shrapnel and ash everywhere. This must've been one powerful explosion."
He peaked his head into a nearby room, and found what he considered a vital clue. On the ground near the wall, a collection of ropes had escaped the blast. He walked over and held them in his hands.
" Cut. So she did escape." He breathed a sigh of relief, and smiled. " I wonder how she did it, though? Maybe Alice had a knife hidden away somewhere. Hmm... or maybe they didn't search her, and she had that dagger with her. Either way, she's definitely not here anymore."
Feeling a bit more cheerful after discovering this, he sheathed his weapon and continued down the corridor, looking for anything else. He stopped dead when he turned the corner. On the ground further ahead was a body. One with four arms. He brought his scimitar back out, and walked forward in a defensive stance.
Nearing the body, he noticed a large blood of blood seeped into the floor underneath it, confirming that this was indeed a corpse. Kneeling, he poked it with his sword just to be sure. It didn't react at all. He turned the body over, face-up. It was the female goro, with several puncture wounds in her chest.
" Son of a bitch... who did this? Definitely not Serena. Actually, I don't even think the two of them together could beat this one. So who, then?"
He stood in silence for a moment, thinking. He ended up shaking his head and looking further ahead, towards the end of the hallway. The entire wall had been blown outwards. He walked towards the hole, ignoring another pool of blood on the ground nearby. He stood in the empty space, looking out towards the nearby woods.
" So, either Serena escaped on her own, fighting them off, leaving one dead and another to flee... and one M.I.A. Or the group fought, giving them an opportunity to book it."
He shook his head, and turned around to return to the others. He hadn't taken another step when he heard a noise coming from behind him. Whipping around, sword in hand, he saw something moving in the treeline. He slowly approached.
" Who's there?" He yelled. " Show yourself, or I will strike you down!"
A figure collapsed out of the foliage, landing in a heap at the woods' edge. Lance quickly ran over. Upon getting closer, he recognized the clothing that the figure, a woman, was wearing. He bent down and lifted up her head to be sure.
Although battered and covered in grime, Alice was easily identifiable.
" I don't get it." Roygo said as he looked at the map.
" How is this even remotely possible? How could she cover that much ground is such a short time? What the hell happened?"
The group was similarly staring at the star on their map, now pulsating on the other side of the world. Roygo traced his finger from their current position to Serena's new one, and frowned. He looked up, realizing that Lance wasn't present.
" Where did Lance go?"
" He went outside to check on the girl again," Barnaby replied. " She's in pretty rough shape since none of us know any healing magic."
Barnaby left him as Roygo began stroking his beard. Hopping out of the carriage, he walked over to where Lance had Alice lying on a bedroll. Argus and Vann sat nearby, waiting to see if they could be of use.
" How is she?" He asked, crossing his arms as he looked at the girl.
" Unconscious, still. Don't have any idea of when she'll wake up. But I did manage to force some food and water down. Not sure how long she's been out in the woods. Hopefully when she does wake up, she can tell us what the fuck happened."
" Hopefully." Barnaby mused.
It was the next morning when she did. Vann was sleeping next to her unconscious body when she was awoken by a noise. Sitting up, Vann she looked around for the source of this noise, when she heard it again. Turning herself around, she realized that Alice was emitting a loud groan, and clutching her stomach. Vann immediately started shaking Alice, trying to rouse a response out of her.
" Alice! Alice, wake up!" She said, leaning over her friend.
Alice slowly began turning over, still holding her midsection. After a few minutes, her eyes fluttered open.
" Oww... fuck. My fucking stomach..." She groaned. Raising her head, she saw an excited young face staring back at her.
" Oh, hey, what's up." She said, letting her head fall back to the ground with an "oof."
" You're awake!"
" I fucking wish I wasn't right about now." Came her response.
" You believe that. Why?"
" Because a goddamn blood cobra bit me before I beat it off with a stick. And apparently the stupid motherfucker who wrapped my torso in gauze didn't realize that. Who's shoddy work is this? I can barely breathe under all this crap."
" Uh... it's Lance's."
" Oh. He's here?"
" Yeah. Not just him, either."
She made an effort to sit upright, but she quickly fell back down.
" Alright, I guess I'm not gettin' up right now. Why don't you go get Lance or whoever else is in that carriage? We have an awful lot to talk about."
She ran over to the carriage, where everyone else was still asleep, and climbed into the back to wake the party.
" I have a letter for you from the Warden, sir. I believe it is an update on her search."
King Leomaris turned to acknowledge the servant before him.
" Thank you for bringing it to me. You may depart, now."
The servant bowed and backed out of the room, closing the heavy wooden door. Leomaris took the letter, which was more like a hastily-written note, and began silently reading it.
" My king, my search has yielded no results as of yet. At least not positive ones. I have not been able to locate any of the three kidnappers. But something else has happened that is deeply concerning to me. Retracing their steps after searching for clues at the headquarters where the clan of goros operate, I headed for the manor where the Gilamore family resides. No one was there save for a few guards, and this is where the concerning news begins. I learned that all of the family, save for Serena's mother, departed to try and track her down themselves. Not only have they put themselves in danger, but in their absence, something terrible took place at the manor. A man, identified as an ex G.P.O. soldier and close friend of the family, was found dead in Roygo's study. Death by puncture wounds to the neck and temple. Furthermore, Mrs. Cynthia Gilamore is currently missing. No one seems to know where she went, but she has essentially disappeared. The security staff tell me they didn't even realize anything had happened until they smelled the corpse from throughout the house today. I quickly left after this, and began writing you this update. I will double my effort, and am going to attempt to reach Q.L. for assistance.
Yours, Lyn Azveltara, Warden of the Realms
P.S. - Please read back."
His face already contorting into a worrying scowl, he turned the letter over and read a few more lines.
" I realized this shortly before attaching this letter to the raven's leg, but I have not had contact with any of my assassins this entire time. Attempting to contact them through their minds has failed. I do not understand what has transpired, but something definitely has. Stay safe."
" What could this mean? Surely none of her assassins could have been killed? They are all extremely skilled... She is correct. Something has transpired. Against us, it would seem."
He folded the letter up and set it on his desk. He hoped that his Warden was okay.
Elsewhere, another man was in his office.
Visgar sat at his own desk, gripping his hands together. His eyes were closed in concentration. After several minutes of sitting there, completely still, he relaxed his position, and leaned back in his chair. Sighing, he rubbed his eyes.
" Failure. She has failed. How disappointing."
He stared aimlessly at the air in front of him.
" I will have to reprimand her when she returns. Perhaps I wont even do it myself. Maybe that will devastate her enough to get the point across."
He got up and began walking. He stepped out of his office, lighting a cigarette as he walked down the dim hallway. He passed by silent servants and guards, who acted as if he wasn't even there. No acknowledgements, no greetings, not even a glance. He even passed his own family members at one point, with the same results.
Visgar liked it that way.
He kept walking until he exited the mansion. The Draughwin Estate was an expansive place, built on a legacy that had been alive before most races even existed. Visgar was the sole owner, having inherited every aspect and part of it after his father's death. He looked towards a low mountain at the far end of the property, and smiled. He kept walking.
After a long trek, passing through all of the usual spots on his hike, Visgar came to a wooden gate. He put his hand on the decaying wood and looked upward, towards the mountain. He pushed it open, and continued. When he reached the top of the path, he inhaled a large whiff of the mountain air, and breathed out. He put his arms on his hips, and looked around at his favorite place.
A small cabin sat near a grove of mountainous trees, all snugly fitting in a clearing on the edge of the mountain. He slowly walked around, absorbing the mountain air. It had been several months since he had been there. Eventually, he made his way to a wooden bench on the edge of the clearing, near a cliff. Here, he was able to view the entirety of the massive property.
" I bet you're really laughing at me now, aren't you?" He said to no one in particular.
" One of my best can't even defeat a mage who's still practically a child."
He chuckled to himself.
" I bet yours could've done it twice as fast. He certainly boasted enough about his prowess."
He looked straight up, into the blue sky.
" But like you, he was a fool. A big, moronic fool who doesn't know how to read the signs. Ironic, isn't it? That the King's Spymaster, the Eyes of the Realms, died in such a humiliating manner?"
He laughed again, this time in a much more sinister tone.
" Gods, were you pathetic. I surpassed your abilities many years before even I realized it myself. Testing it on the servants, hell, even mother at one point. You never even saw the vast webbing I had laid throughout your own strands of silk. You old, bumbling fool."
" It was easy, too. You were both paranoid and and far too trusting at the same time. ' That old Grisham, poisoned by his own man?' they said. ' Yes, and the man drank from the same glass beforehand. It was a suicide!' Amazingly simple. You trusted them enough to never check that they were still connected to you, and not me."
" My network is far more advanced than yours ever was. My web of influence expands across the world. And I'm not a decrepit old bastard like you, either. I can actually maintain them. So laugh at me from whatever existential plane you're watching from, father. I don't care."
He got up, and walked over to the edge of the cliff.
" My Minerva may have failed, but I have other assets being used for this scenario. Assets can be replaced rather easily."
He smiled once more.
" Just like you, father."
In the tundra, near a magical border, a large figure approached a gate. Two hulking figures in golden armor stepped in front of the figure as he approached, crossing their steel halberds across it.
" Halt!" Growled the bear on the left.
" What reason do you have for leaving?" Barked the one on the right.
The figure walked closer, a massive Highbear that carried no weapons.
" I leave on the request of the Elves. I have permission right here."
He pulled out a scroll, which the guards took. Reading it, everything seemed in place, including the large paw-print signature at the bottom. The two nodded at the lone bear, and let him pass. He walked through the gate, where on the other side, the harsh weather of the Winterstone's proximity took effect. He trudged his way through the snow, heading in a straight line.
A woman was slicing apart a wolf. The poor creature was already dead, but the woman attacked with a ferocity as if it had eaten her firstborn child. Once she was satisfied, she plunged her hands into the wolf's entrails and scooped out as much blood as possible. Grinning in a terrible smile, she brought her hands to her mouth and drank it, licking her lips afterwards. She moaned very sensually, and dragged her hands across her body, leaving bloody trails all over her face and torso.
Another wolf began silently creeping up behind her. This one happened to be a moonwolf, a very dark-silver and more ferocious variant of the normal breed. The woman on the ground perked up as she heard the slight movement of the grass behind her. She craned her neck around and grinned at the wolf, almost as if greeting it.
Almost instantaneously, the wolf transformed into a lean, elven man. He nodded at the woman on the ground, her dark skin now gleaming with the wolf's blood. Approaching her, he sat down and observed as she repeated the blood drinking process.
A strong gust of wind came out of nowhere, forcing the two to brace themselves as they waited for the source of it. A stream of dark petals, seemingly dancing in the wind, came towards them, before landing on the ground to form the third member of the trio. A tall elf with billowing hair, he stood on a rock overlooking the surrounding forest.
The three of them locked eyes with each other, and then disappeared in a cloud of petals.
A crowd of kobolds was gathering around a large tent. They whispered excitedly among one another, and more were joining the throng each minute. Inside the tent, an elderly kobold was sitting on a mat, smoking a large pipe. A small collection of kobolds who were clearly warriors stood around him in a semicircle. Another kobold suddenly ran into the tent.
" Has the Elder's vision concluded yet?" He asked, panting.
They all shushed him, and he quietly joined the circle. The Elder sat quietly for a few more minutes, occasionally humming and sucking on his pipe. Finally, he sat upright, and opened his eyes.
" The spirits have revealed to me the path to a new Hunt, my children. Gather so that I may reveal your targets, and you may bring glory to our people once again."
The warriors eagerly crowded around the man, listening intently to his every word. When it was done, they ran out of the tent, whooping and yelling their various war-cries, and began gathering their weapons.
" So, can I ask again why we're cutting through these woods if they're so dangerous?"
" Like I said," The Huntress began, gritting her teeth. " They're only dangerous if we make them dangerous. If we don't fuck with anything that lives here, we should be fine."
" Besides you-know-who," muttered Phil from the rear of the trio.
" Oh, fuck off, Phil. Don't even get me started on those guys. I don't wanna go anywhere near their territory if we can help it."
" I'm sorry, but who are you referring to?" Serena asked, confused.
The Huntress sighed as they walked down the narrow trail.
" It's this tribe of kobolds. They're super territorial and super mean. In other words, they're fucking nuts and they don't like outsiders."
" They also go on... Hunts. Every once in a while, all of the warriors set out to go hunt... things. I don't know how they decide or how they know where their target is, but the hunts usually don't last long."
" They hunt people, don't they?" Serena asked.
There was silence from both of her companions. She knew what the answer to that question was. They continued walking, making steady progress through the woods.
Suddenly, Phil stopped them.
" Hold up. Do either of you smell that?"
He began sniffing the air, while the two elves looked around, confused.
" Uh... no? At least, I don't." Serena said.
" Me either."
Phil began walking forward, getting on all fours now to sniff the ground.
" It's coming from up ahead." He said, lifting his head. " Whatever it is, it's fucking rancid."
The Huntress got her bow out, and readied an arrow in it. Phil followed suit after he stood up, opening his coat to grab a revolver from inside. Serena made sure that her dagger was secured on her belt.
They moved forward cautiously, Phil a good deal ahead of the other two. After a few minutes, they came across the source of the scent. They were horrified at the scene before them.
A destroyed caravan, consisting of several different carts, was lain out on the path. They had been flipped over onto their sides, their contents ransacked, and practically completely torn apart. The corpses of the animals that had been leading them lay on the ground, still attached to their harnesses. But that wasn't the part that the trio was staring at.
" Holy shit..." The Huntress muttered.
Serena's mouth was silently agape at the carnage before them. People, or what she assumed had been people due to their current state, were everywhere. Some corpses were pinned to trees by wooden spears; others were stacked in a chaotic pile in the middle of the path. Some of them were hung with what appeared to be rope from the branches of trees. On a closer inspection, the ropes were their own intestines.
She looked away as Phil covered his nose.
" Oh, fuck, I think I'm gonna vomit. That smells so fucking bad."
The Huntress gave him a rag to tie around his face to block some of the smell. Serena was facing the complete opposite direction, trying not to vomit herself.
" Alright, come on guys. The sooner we move past it the sooner we can get this image out of our minds. And do not put your hands on a single thing here as we go. They might have cursed them, just to spite any would-be looters." The Huntress ordered.
Serena took a deep breath and turned around, covering her nose with one hand. With the other, she grabbed the Huntress' shoulder and closed her eyes.
" What the fuck are you doing?" She demanded as she turned her head to the side.
" I... I don't wanna look at it." Serena whispered.
The Huntress sighed and shook her head. She took Serena's hand and led her around the pile, Phil following close behind. Once they were past the site of the attack, the three of them lapsed into an uncomfortable silence for a long while.
" So... are we just not gonna talk about it?" Serena finally asked.
" No, we're not. It was gross, but we didn't know them. There was nothing we could've done. So it's not our problem."
" But... I just can't believe it. Why? Why did they do... all that? Killing all of those people is bad enough, but why were they so brutal?"
" Dunno. It's just how they are. They aren't exactly the most civilized tribe. End of discussion."
In the upper branches of a tree, a kobold sat, his bow taut as he aimed down at the trail before him. The other warriors of his tribe were hiding in similar fashion in the treeline, some in bushes, and some up with him in the branches. Some excited whispering was exchanged as the targets came into the sight, but they were quickly silenced by the other hunters. A more experienced warrior put an arm on the archer to help steady him.
" Wait, for my mark, brother." He whispered to the younger kobold before him. " Strike when the forehead of the young one is in view. She reeks of magic, and I do not wish to fight one of the elf mages. We could lose many brothers to her."
The kobold nodded, and focused his view on the trio on the ground. As they slowly approached, more of their figures were revealed through the canopy of leaves. He saw an older elf, one of the two that they were hunting, talking to the others behind her. One of them being the elf he was currently aiming at. He also paid special attention to the kobold trailing behind them, wondering why he was involved with the two elves.
He shook those thoughts from his head, and re-focused. The warrior who was steadying him tightened his grip on the archer's arm.
" Now." He whispered.
The Huntress suddenly threw her hand in front of Serena's face, where a split second later, it was pierced by an arrow.
Phil and Serena looked at her in shock before she pulled her hand away and screamed in pain. They began to hear a series of whooping and yelling from all around them.
" It's a fuckin' ambush!" Phil screamed as Serena bent over to tend to the Huntress. She panicked, and looked up to see a large collection of kobolds coming out of every nook and cranny of the forest, straight towards her. She put both hands out in front of her, and a tornado of concentrated wind blasted forward, knocking the wave of attackers back into the forest, where several of their bodies were met with the trunks of trees, crumbling them into unconsciousness. She heard gunshots coming from behind her, and looked back to see Phil gunning down several kobolds that had charged them from behind.
As she focused her attention back on the Huntress, when several more arrows landed in the ground around her. She quickly threw up a thunderdome around the three and them as a barrier. Phil whirled around to face her.
" What the fuck is this?!"
" It's a spell!" She yelled, helping her ally back to her feet. " It'll keep us safe for a while, even if they start attacking it. Trust me, it's sturdy enough to hold."
Once the Huntress was back up, Serena grabbed her hand and began healing it, the arrow slowly being pushed out as the flesh regrew.
" Ow, fuck, FUCK, that hurts!" She yelled as it finally fell to the ground. She rubbed her hand before grabbing her bow off the ground and looking around them. The dome was transparent enough to see out of, and all three of them watched as the kobolds cautiously encircled them.
" Crap. What do we do now?" Serena nervously asked her more experienced companions.
" They're definitely here to kill us." The Huntress said. " They wont leave us alone until they accomplish that goal. So we're gonna have to kill all of them."
" Is that really our only option?" Serena replied.
" Unless you think of a better one."
A few minutes later, they were indeed completely surrounded. Kobolds sat on all sides of them, axes and spears readily aimed at them on the ground, and the shifting branches in the trees gave away the position of moving archers. A lone kobold approached the dome.
He was darker than the rest. His body, covered in scars and war paint, had obviously seen many more hunts than the men around him. He wore nothing, save for a loincloth and a belt around his waist, that was full of throwing axes, swinging haphazardly. His stride was confident as he stopped within a few feet of the thunderdome.
" Come on out, and make this easier for yourselves. While I and my brothers will gladly tear down this evil barrier, it would be a waste of energy and time. We wish to kill you quickly, so that we may present your corpses to the village elder as soon as possible. Especially that witch in there. She is a most excellent prize."
He licked his lips as he stared at Serena, making her shift away uncomfortably.
Phil walked forward to talk to this apparent leader.
" Look, man, that's not gonna happen. I'm sorry. These two and I really need to pass through these woods. You're not killing any of us."
The kobold held up his hands in defense.
" Oh, no, not you, brother. We do not wish to kill you. Even though you have downed several of our warriors, we will forgive it as an act of panic. You have my word that you may cross these woods safely. As for your... companions, they must die. It has been decreed by the Elder. The elf women have been marked for death today."
As soon as the kobold had finished that last statement, Serena fell to her knees and began clutching her head. The Huntress rushed over to help her.
" Shit, what's wrong? Are you okay? Don't you fucking dare drop that shield right now, you hear me?"
After several seconds of holding a pained expression, Serena took a deep breath, and stood back up.
" Yes, I'm fine now. I just... had a moment. Sorry."
" This better not happen a lot."
" Fuckin' great."
The Huntress looked out at the crowd of foes around them. A few minutes passed.
" What do we do now?" Serena asked, worried. " Even if I blink us past them, they'll just keep following us. If they could track us to this random spot, then I'm sure they can find us down the road."
The Huntress was in thought for a while, before she gave a tired sigh.
" I have... one idea. It might work." She said as she looked at the painted kobold again.
" Would you mind explaining what that idea is?"
" Yeah. I'm gonna beat the shit out of that guy." She calmly said, pointing to the kobold, who glared back at her.
" Is... is there anything beyond that part? Please tell me there is."
She turned to to Phil, looking for assistance. He simply shook his head at her.
" If the plan's in her head, it's already gonna happen. Just don't argue."
She turned back to the Huntress, who was now at the edge of the barrier, staring down the kobold. She whistled at him, and he warily walked closer.
" Okay, dick-weed," She began, spitting on the ground near his feet. " I challenge you to one-on-one combat. Fight to the death."
" What is she doing?!" Serena angrily whispered to Phil. She turned, and was surprised to see him smiling to himself while he scratched his chin.
" That's fucking brilliant... she's challenging him to trial by combat. Most tribals love that shit. Or at least, they respect the rule. We'll just have to see if these guys will accept."
The painted kobold looked at the woman in front of him with a smirk on his face.
" You wish to fight me? In the vain hope that you can beat me?"
" Did I fucking stutter, dog?"
His nostrils flared at this insult, and even the other hunters gave each other looks as they waited for their leader to respond.
" I accept your challenge, you insolent bitch. You have 10 minutes to prepare."
" Are you sure that this is a good idea?" Serena said as the Huntress did some warm-up stretches.
" Do you not think I can whoop this guy's ass?"
" That's not what I'm saying. I'm just not sure how you're so confident right now."
She got up, cracking her knuckles. The Huntress patted Serena on the shoulder.
" You haven't seen me fight yet."
She walked to the edge of the thunderdome, where the painted one was waiting to address her.
" Here are the rules of this combat. It will be hand-to-hand only. No weapons, and especially no Magic of any kind. We will fight to the death. There is no surrendering. No armor or thick clothing is allowed, either. If I win, you all submit willingly to death. If you win, you may continue peacefully. My warriors will not hunt you. Do you accept these terms?"
She looked past him, to the crowd of warriors.
" What about your buddies?"
" They shall not interfere as long as your companions do not interfere."
She narrowed her eyes.
" How can I be sure of that?"
The kobold whistled, and another warrior brought him a small knife. Without wincing, he took the knife to the palm of his hand and made a small, clean cut. With blood dripping onto the ground, he extended it to her.
" A blood pact. My fellow hunters will accept it."
The Huntress turned her head.
" Phil, get your knife out."
" I guess I'll heal it after the fight?"
After wrapping her hand in bandages, the Huntress was ready to fight. She was already undressed, wearing only a small undershirt that covered the top half of her torso, and her long underwear. Serena was unimpressed with the woman's physique, until she turned and exposed a bulging six-pack.
" Whoa! I guess you're a lot stronger than you look."
" Something like that, yeah."
She did some warm-up punches and walked out of the thunderdome. The kobolds were sitting in various positions, all to the sides of the path. Serena looked at her for permission to drop the dome, and the Huntress nodded. Hesitantly, she released it, the crackling blue wall slowly fading away. She and Phil cautiously walked to the sideline, where they stood as far away from the kobolds as possible.
The painted one stood opposite of the Huntress, walking back and forth as he eyed her. He had removed his belt of axes, and now only his loincloth remained.
" Before we begin, I want to make sure that you're aware of what you're doing. You do realize that I am an experienced warrior and hunter, and that you are fighting a kobold in unarmed combat, correct?"
He brought out his claws to emphasize his point.
" Yes, I do. And I'm not really interesting in making threats to each other. Let's just get this over with. Just cut the bullshit and attack me."
" As you wish."
He immediately lunged at her.
The Huntress sidestepped; the kobold landed on all fours behind her and quickly turned around. She taunted him and crouched into a fighting stance. The kobold growled, and stood up. He ran towards her, bringing out his claws, and went to slash at her torso. The Huntress lunged forward and grabbed his arms as he came closer, and the two struggled against each other, trying to gain the upper hand.
Suddenly, the kobold managed to pick up his elven opponent, and swung her backwards over his head. She slammed into the ground, and all of the kobolds on the sidelines cheered for their champion. Serena nervously watched as the kobold proceeded to pin her to the ground. Phil seemed somewhat bored by the event.
The kobold brought his knees down on the Huntress's arms, pinning her upper-body. He grabbed her by the head with one hand, and raised his other to claw at her.
" You will die by a true warrior's hand!" He shouted as he swung his arm down.
She let out a primal scream and kneed him in the groin. The blow connected with such force that it rocketed him over her head, and he tumbled behind her in the dirt. She leaped back up, breathing heavily, fortunate enough to escape with only some minor cuts. Not wanting to give him a chance to recover, she almost immediately charged at him as he was getting back up. As he turned his head towards her, she struck him in the face with her elbow. The sickening sound of crunching bone was heard as he collapsed to the ground. All of the kobolds stopped cheering, while Serena began emitting shouts of encouragement.
The Huntress stepped towards her opponent, who was now on the ground, clutching his snout. When he took his hands away to glare at her, it was clear that she had at least somewhat broken his nose. She crossed her arms and looked down at him, before spitting in his face. When he began rising to face her again, she kicked him in the stomach. He fell back to the ground, face-down. The Huntress sat on his back, pinning him. She pulled one of his arms behind his back, and forced it upwards at an awkward angle. She held it there as he struggled against her.
" What'll it be, dumbfuck? You want me to break your arm, or should I go a step further and fucking rip it off? How well can you fight with a single arm?"
" Do your worst, you long-eared bitch." He hissed back at her.
" Can do!" She cheerfully replied as she moved to tear off his appendage. But as she did, she was suddenly thrown off balance as the kobold managed to push her off of his back.
Disoriented, she got up just as the kobold brought his claws toward her. She raised her arms to protect her face, and he sunk his claws into the exposed flesh. She screeched in pain as he dug into her again and again, before finally kicking him in the chest, sending him stumbling backwards. The crowd was once again ecstatic, now chanting and pounding their chests at what they assumed was an assured victory. Phil had even completely stood up now, opposed to his casual sitting position. He was intensely staring at the fighters now, a worried expression growing on his face.
The Huntress held her trembling arms in front of her face, watching as blood poured out of the wounds. As Serena watched, she couldn't help but notice something... odd about the wounds. But her thoughts were almost immediately interrupted as the two re-engaged in battle. The Huntress began backing up and trying to avoid every attack thrown at her as the kobold went on the offensive. Every once in a while, each of them would land a hit, the Huntress with a kick and the kobold wit his claws. The battle turned into an intense dance of death, but the outcome seemed very clear.
As her movements slowed, and she lost more blood, the Huntress was hit by a particularly nasty swipe to her left leg. She buckled a bit, and the leg almost gave out, but she still stood upright.
" I am somewhat impressed by your durability," The kobold said as he approached again. " I would have assumed that your body would give out now. You are quite determined to survive."
The Huntress, looking like she was about to collapse, began laughing. The kobold stopped a few feet away from her, an amused smile on his face.
" What's so funny? Have you gone mad in the middle of our fight?"
The Huntress sat down, still chuckling to herself.
" No, no... it's just that, well, it's been around 4 or 5 minutes since we started, right?"
The kobold narrowed his eyes at her.
" What are you on about, woman?"
" My blood is poisonous."
" I didn't stutter. In large amounts, my blood is poisonous, and your hands are covered in it, not to mention all of it that's splashed all over your body. Your skin has absorbed a shit-ton of it. If it isn't already starting to, your body should be completely paralyzed pretty soon. Hopefully within the next 30 seconds or so, so I can wrap this up."
" You're bluffing, you witch!" He shouted as he stepped forward. As he did so, his legs gave out, and he fell forwards. The Huntress began laughing again as he began crawling towards her, digging his hands into the dirt.
" You... fucking... cheater!" He growled as he clawed the ground. The Huntress shakily got up.
" Not cheating. It's a part of my body. I can't help what I was born with. How are your claws any different?"
His head fell, hitting the ground. He stopped moving his arms. The Huntress limped over to him, and bent down to look him in the eye.
" I'm gonna finish you off in a second. How do you want to die?"
He closed his eyes for a moment and thought. When he opened them again, it seemed that he had accepted his fate.
" Just leave me in one piece."
She used her wounded arms to prop him up, so that he was kneeling in front of her. The kobold looked her straight in the eyes as she backed up a few steps. After a large intake of breath, she curled her hand into a fist. She lunged forward, connecting with the center of the kobold's chest. He fell backwards with a thud, but beyond that, it seemed like nothing else had happened. The Huntress promptly collapsed onto her back, exhausted.
" He's dead!" She shouted to the spectators, who had fallen silent. Several of the kobolds immediately rushed towards their fallen comrade, while Serena and Phil quickly walked over to the Huntress to help her.
Phil bent down and propped her up while Serena prepared to heal her. As she placed her hands on the ripped flesh, she saw something that disturbed her. When she opened her mouth to comment, one of the kobolds spoke first.
" His heart has stopped!" The young warrior cried out. " He's really dead! Kalim is dead!"
The group of hunters looked around at each other, unable to cope with the idea that their strongest warrior had been bested by an elven woman. Meanwhile, Serena was finishing up the healing process as Phil helped the Huntress to her feet.
" You really scared me there for a minute." He said to her in a relieved tone.
" I haven't exactly had to fight like that in a while," She admitted. " Well, at least not hand-to-hand. I'm just glad it's over so we can get the hell out of here."
Serena finished the healing, a perplexed look on her face. She handed the Huntress her clothes, and she quickly redressed. The kobolds now all stood in a group around their leader's body. One of them in particular, another painted, but much younger, warrior, turned to the trio, and his body emanated with rage. He angrily pointed to the Huntress.
" The vile witch defied the rules! She used some kind of magic to render our brother harmless! I will not fall for her tricks any longer!"
He raised his spear and brandished it towards the group. Many of the other kobolds followed suit, readying their weapons for an attack.
" Oh, fuck me..." The Huntress muttered.
The kobolds stepped forward to attack, barely giving the trio any time to react. Serena, almost automatically, put one hand forwards and one hand backwards. Using the hand facing behind her, she used her telekinesis to whip her allies several feet back. Using the one in front, she summoned a wave of arcane missiles.
The attacking kobolds were stopped dead in their tracks as dozens of spear-like, arcane projectiles materialized out of thin air. Practically a wall of them were placed directly between them and Serena, while others surrounded each individual fighter, almost daring them to move and be impaled by the magic.
" Stop!" She commanded, now holding both hands forward. " Stop, or I'll pierce every single one of your bodies with these missiles!"
" You agreed upon a blood oath to honor the rules of the fight and the outcome. You are dishonoring your fallen friend by trying to attack us. It was fair. My friend here might not have used any magic, but I sure as hell will if any of you try to harm me, or especially if you try to harm them. I hope I've made that clear."
She waited a few moments for any of them to try something. They didn't.
" When I release this spell, you are going to leave. You are not going to bother or follow us, like agreed upon. If you do, I will rain down enough hellfire and brimstone to destroy this entire forest. Do you understand me?"
The kobolds muttered to themselves, and still did not move. Serena waved her hand in a circular motion, and a storm cloud gathered in the sky above.
" DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?" She yelled, timing her delivery with a booming thunderclap.
" Alright, yes, we understand! Just let us go!" A voice shouted out from the crowd of trapped hunters.
The clouds dispersed, and she slowly released the hunters, one at a time. Some of them angrily glared at her, but most were concerned with carrying away their fallen comrade and leaving. When they had all dispersed into the forest, she breathed a sigh of relief, and turned to her allies.
" Glad that's over. I really didn't want to have to hurt any of them."
" Wait... was that whole fucking thing just bravado?" The Huntress said as Serena approached them.
" You've gotta be kiddin' me." Phil said, shaking his head.
Much later, the group approached the woods' edge, where they decided to camp for the night. The Huntress was keeping a watching eye on the surrounding treeline, sitting on a large rock that gave a decent overview to the area. When she was satisfied with her vigil, she headed back to where Phil and Serena had set up the fire. Mostly Serena. Matches are pretty redundant when someone can snap their fingers and create a flame.
As she approached, she saw a small light up ahead, but not that of the fire. Investigating, she found Serena, leaning on a small tree. The light was in the form of a small orb floating next to her.
" Hey. What are you doing? Go get some sleep."
" Oh! Sorry, I was just... about to go 'number one,' if you catch my drift. I'll be there in a minute."
" Hmmph." The Huntress puffed, walking away.
Serena extinguished the light. She didn't need to take a piss. She was thinking. Thinking about something. During the fight, and when she had a closer look at her strange companion's wounds. When she had peered into the jagged flesh of the Huntress' arms, there were several areas where the torn flesh went down far enough to expose the bone of her arm. Serena was completely, without a doubt in her mind, sure that she had not seen bone.
She had seen wood.
In the mid-afternoon sun, a large creature descended from the sky. As it came closer to the ground, it became clear that it was a dragon. The beast landed as softly as possible next to a lake, where he sent a small group of deer scattering as he hit the ground. The dragon surveyed his surroundings before dipping his head to drink from the lake. As he did, his wings relaxed and lowered to the ground, exposing the long line of spikes along his spine for which he had been named Spikeridge.
As Ridge lifted his head from the lake, he decided to find something to eat. Looking around, he saw no immediate signs of any animals, so he began walking through the nearby forest, crushing and pushing aside trees as he went. He suddenly smelled something, and turned his head to a nearby clearing. Slinking towards it, he lowered his head and observed a pack of wolves tearing apart the corpse of an elephelk. Some of the animals looked up at him, but promptly continued eating. Ridge emitted a roar, which did manage to scare them off, as well as rip some small trees out of the ground. As they left, yipping and whimpering, he bent down and ate what remained of the beast.
Once the carcass had been picked clean, Ridge desired another drink, and to quickly wash his face. He may have been a dragon, but he was an intelligent dragon, whose master had taught him well. He headed back to the lake where he had landed, and sunk his head under the water. When he came back up and opened his eyes, he noticed something moving across the water.
When Ridge looked up into the sky, it was already too late. A massive weight slammed into his side, sending him flying through the woodland, tearing it apart as he tumbled. He only stopped once he hit a rocky cliff overlooking the lake. As he awkwardly got back on all fours, he looked back to see what had hit him.
A trio of whelplings was before him. The one on the ground was obviously the one who had rammed him, and was much larger than Ridge. The other two circled above. Ridge growled and fully extended his wings into the air, hoping to intimidate them. When the whelpling facing him didn't move, he instead tried to reach out with his mind to communicate.
" Why do you attack me, kin? We are not enemies. I do not wish to fight you. I have a much more important task as of now. Please, listen to reason."
The whelpling roared at him in response, and it became clear to Ridge that this trio could not be reasoned with. The gigantic beast took a step forward, and Ridge reached out one last time to at least try to be peaceful. As his thoughts moved towards the whelpling, he felt something push against them. He pushed harder, digging his claws into the dirt, but he couldn't get past whatever force was blocking him. He gave up, and braced himself for whatever attack came first.
As the lumbering beast approached Ridge, his pace increased from a slow march to an intense sprint that shook the ground as he ran. As he crashed through the forest, he folded back his wings and adjusted so that he was running with his shoulder forwards, attempting to once again ram Ridge. At the last moment before the whelpling hit him, Ridge pushed off of the ground, soaring into the air. He looked down, and watched as the whelpling slammed into the cliffside, collapsing most of it.
While Ridge was distracted, the two remaining whelplings dived at him, both of them emitting a blazing torrent of fire as they moved closer. Ridge pulled his wings in front of his body, blocking the attack, and the two beasts rushed forward and grappled him, tackling him towards the ground. He smashed into the dirt, creating a large crater around him. As the two attackers ferociously clawed at his wings, he swung his barbed tail upwards, slicing at one of the beast's underbelly. The whelpling immediately backed away, giving Ridge the opportunity to focus on the other one still attacking him.
Building up a fire in his throat, Ridge suddenly opened his wings, startling his feral cousin. He lunged forward and grabbed onto the whelpling's head, and let loose the raging inferno he was holding, directly onto the whelpling's face.
The beast screeched in pain and thrashed in Ridge's grasp as it desperately tried to escape, to no avail. He kept pouring out more flames, feeling the panic and rage as he scorched the beast's face.
Eventually, the whelpling stopped struggling. Its body went limp, and Ridge released it, backing away to survey the damage. One side of the whelpling's face had been completely melted off, showing its charred skull. The remaining half was almost completely black, burnt to a crisp. He cautiously walked over, keeping an eye on the other whelpling, which was also keeping some distance between them. He turned his head and observed the largest of the trio rising from the rubble of the cliffside. When he reached the body of the downed whelpling, he stomped on it's skull to make sure it was dead. Hoping that his display of power was enough to keep the other two at bay, Ridge launched himself into the sky in an attempt to avoid any further combat.
He flew away as fast as possible, but the smaller whelpling took off soon after he did. The larger one, while groggy, also witnessed his flight, and began to take to the sky. Ridge did his best to outpace them, but the duo managed to keep up with him, and were actually beginning to catch up. Ridge knew that there was almost no chance of him winning a direct, physical fight with the duo, and he became desperate, trying to think of a plan.
Luck came in when he saw a large mountain range off in the distance. Looking behind him to judge the distance between him and his pursuers, he quickly thought of a plan, and flew straight upwards, towards a layer of clouds in the sky. He disappeared through it, the whelplings not immediately knowing how to react. When Ridge thought he was in the correct location, he dived back towards the ground.
Ridge crouched as low as he possibly could near the base of the mountain. He knew that the duo would begin searching for him, and his plan relied on exactly that. He hoped that they would pass his impromptu hiding spot, giving him a chance to ambush them from behind. This plan partially worked.
Ridge watched as the larger whelpling passed straight over him, scanning the surrounding area. Ridge got himself ready, and as soon as the second whelpling came into view, he launched himself into the air with all the force he could muster. The smaller whelpling turned to face him, having heard the takeoff, but was too late to stop Ridge's surprise attack. Ridge barreled into the whelpling, and dug his teeth into his foe's throat. He throttled the whelpling as much as possible as they descended towards the ground, struggling against one another. When they did reach the ground, the whelpling slammed into the dirt, Ridge still on top of him. He proceeded to rip out a chunk of the whelpling's throat, as is shrieked and roared in pain. Ridge backed away as he watched it thrash around, watching as golden blood showered out of the wound.
" Gold. But he's not recovering from the bite, meaning that he still hasn't developed any sort of divinity. The first one didn't either. If I am lucky, this last foe will be in the same state."
As the pool of blood spread, it scorched the ground and bubbled from its intense magical properties. Ridge was observing this when he suddenly felt a wave of heat wash over him. Turning, it suddenly increased in intensity as he caught a glimpse of what was coming towards him. As he turned, an almost literal wall of fire slammed into him with such force that it physically pushed him backwards. He put up his wings and tried to brace himself against it, but its power was too much, and his guard collapsed, sending him tumbling backwards until he came to a stop at the base of the mountain he had been hiding by. Scorched, bruised, and heavily breathing, Ridge stumbled back to his feet as the last whelpling approached him.
Ridge concentrated as much energy as he could on trying to heal some of his wounds as golden blood began to trickle out of him. He had developed his divinity many years ago, but it was still not properly developed. In dragon terms, he was still practically a toddler.
The behemoth of a whelpling charged Ridge once again, repeating his previous strategy. Ridge was too damaged and slow to dodge this time, and took the full force of it as he was smashed into the mountainside, digging straight into it. The whelpling opened his mouth to let loose another blaze, hoping to completely incinerate Ridge from point-blank range. In a desperate move, Ridge lunged forward, shoving one of his front arms into its mouth.
The whelpling responded by biting down. Ridge roared in pain, and the whelpling wasn't giving up on his plan. Ridge felt a searing pain in his hand as the fire built up, but he was determined to live. The whelpling, growing angry, began clawing at Ridge with one of his free hands. Ridge roared again in complete agony as parts of his wings were completely shredded. He managed to block some of these blows, at the expense of his other front arm taking heavy damage.
As Ridge felt his strength waning, he let out one last, desperate attack. He built up as much fire as he could in the back of his throat, and prepared to let it loose on the whelpling. His bloody and charred arm went limp as he withdrew it from the whelpling's mouth. Ridge knew that he only had a few more seconds to react before he would be killed.
As Ridge began to let out his own fire, he felt a sudden sensation in the back of his throat, and he began to choke.
As the whelpling's flames left his mouth, Ridge lost control of his body. His mouth snapped open, and an intense, purple light came forth. The whelpling's eyes widened in surprise, and a beam of Arcane energy exploded forward. It shot straight through the whelpling's chest, arcing upwards through the rest of his body, and continued to fire into the sky, where it parted the clouds.
After several minutes, the beam finally fizzled out, and Ridge regained his senses. At first he didn't move, instead heavily panting as he looked upon the corpse of the whelpling that now slouched in front of him. Most of its upper body had been completely vaporized, leaving Ridge with a steamy view of the whelpling's innards.
He struggled to get to his feet, slowly limping his way past the corpse. As his blood slowly began to stop leaving his body, he took another step past the whelpling, and collapsed. He sat there, panting, as he looked up into the sky.
Ridge then closed his eyes, and began to rest. He would need much of it to recover.
In the middle of the wilderness, on top of a scorched and battered hilltop, a large slab of ice had melted into a puddle. Nearby, a young elvish woman was kneeling on the ground. Dripping wet from a combination of melted ice, sweat, and tears, she stared at the ground, breathing heavily. She tightly gripped a tuft of grass in each hand, trying to contain a scream that was threatening to come out.
" Why?" She said through gritted teeth. " How? How could I lose to that... child? I'm such a disgrace... what will Master think when he finds out?"
Her lip began to quiver at the prospect of her Master realizing her failure.
" I already do."
Minerva's heart skipped a beat as her Master spoke to her through her mind. She immediately broke out into a cold sweat, as she felt his presence moving inside of her head. He took control of her eyes, and Minerva went blind as he surveyed the battlefield around her. She silently sat, quivering, until he was done, and she regained her vision.
" I have nothing to say to you, other than that you have failed me. I do not care what led to these circumstances. I do not care about the mercenaries, and I do not care about how she defeated you. You have failed. And now you deserve punishment."
Her eyes lit up with terror at the idea.
" N-no, Master, wait, ple-"
" SILENCE." his booming voice commanded, crashing down into her mind like a bolt of lightning. Minerva stopped speaking.
" This task must be completed. I have already dispatched others to finish what you have botched. Hopefully, they will perform better than you have."
" Others? No... No! Master, I am the only servant you need! Please, give me another chance! I promise that I can redeem myself. I just need you to trust me! I'm your most loyal servant! Have I not completed every other task you've ever given me? This one was just a twist of bad luck. I can fix this!"
A tense silence ensued. Minerva didn't dare move during this time, trying her best to steady her quivering body.
" I suppose... I will give you one last chance. You have served me well enough to deserve that."
Minerva let out a relived breath that she had been holding in.
" Th-thank you, Master. I will not squander this opportunity."
" Of course you wont. But even though I am being lenient, I must still punish you. The others have a map linked to the tracking rune cast on her neck. They also have my guidance and control. You will have neither."
" I... do not understand, Master."
" You have your objective. Do not fail me."
She felt his presence leave, and her body returned to normal.
" Master?" She whispered into the air.
There was only silence. Moments later, she realized what had happened. She tried reaching out with her mind, and felt nothing. Her Master had severed his connection to her.
This was the most devastating part of the entire exchange for Minerva. She had gone her entire life under his influence, always feeling his presence around and with her. It provided a warm sense of comfort to her. To feel that mental link severed was almost too much to bear. Minerva began to cry.
In-between sobs, Minerva managed to choke out a few sentences.
" I... I need you! Please!"
She curled into the fetal position on the crest of the hill.
" Please come back..."
" Ro... Rotti... Rotten... What the fuck does that say? I can't read it." The Huntress said, squinting at the wooden sign.
" I believe that it says "Rottildi.' It's written in Dwarf. It's probably the name of that town up ahead." Serena answered, pointing down the road.
" You can read Dwarf?" Phil inquired, joining the conversation.
" I can read and speak every language in the Realms, except Gnoll, but I'm not exactly fluent in any of them besides Common. Also, It'd be nice if we could stop in that town. I'm really tired, and we could really use some supplies." She continued.
" Can't you just conjure us up some stuff to eat?" Phil asked.
" Not unless you want a rubber steak, like a dog."
Phil gave her a tired look, while the Huntress snorted in amusement. It took Serena a moment to realize what she had said.
" Oh, uh... I didn't mean it like, a dog joke, I was being serious. I really can't do that. I could summon us some water or something, if you want me to."
To prove her point, she summoned a glass out of the air, and filled it with water in the same manner, and then presented it to him.
He shook his head and looked away.
" Mmm..." The Huntress said a few moments later, thinking about the suggestion. " Yeah, I guess we could stay a night or two there. You're skilled enough to conjure gold, right?" She said, turning to Serena, who was pouring out the glass.
She nodded in response.
" Alright. We'll just have to hope that they accept conjured gold as currency. I know some places don't, especially out in these parts. C'mon, let's get a move on."
The trio set off down the road.
Not far away, a man stumbled through the forest. He leaned against a tree, breathing heavily.
" Gotta... gotta get away..." He managed to get out, wiping sweat off of his forehead. He heard a noise come from somewhere nearby, and looked around in a panic.
" Son of a bitch..." He said, grunting, as he got up off the tree. He began limping forward, clutching at his thigh from underneath his cloak. He made it less than a dozen meters forward, and then it was over.
As the man stepped forward, he felt a sudden sensation in his leg, and then collapsed forwards on the ground. Not understanding what had happened, he turned his body, and saw the bear-trap that was crunching down on his lower leg. He did nothing but sit there, barely conscious, and stared down at the device as his leg bled. A few moments later, an arrow came flying out of the treeline, piercing his chest. The man collapsed over, his body going limp.
Several figures approached, coming out of the shrubbery. They all wore dark clothing, and one was holding a crossbow.
" Odd. He didn't scream at all, or anything. Isn't that weird, sir?" One of the shorter figures remarked.
" He was probably in shock, at least for those last few moments. He probably wasn't going to start feeling pain for a good few minutes or so." The largest and most prominent figure said.
The one with the crossbow approached the man's corpse, and poked it with their weapon.
" Well, at least I got him. I'm sorry that I only grazed his leg with that first shot, sir." They said, revealing a feminine voice underneath the hood.
" It's fine, since the others were subdued properly. It's enough that he didn't get away. This is still a net-positive. Just get him loose from the trap and start dragging him back."
The two people nodded, and set to work on the man's body. The larger figure began walking back through the woods.
Serena summoned a few more coins in her hand, counting out an exact number. She added them to the pile on the counter, and looked back at the innkeeper.
" That should be 500. Would that be enough for at least one night?"
The elderly elf, looking quite annoyed, eyed the pile of gold. She looked up at Serena.
" Normally I wouldn't take any of that gold. I don't really trust mages; they've screwed me over quite a few times in the past... But you look pretty tired, not to mention dirty, so I'll take some pity on you tonight."
Serena smiled brightly.
" Thank you! I promise, we wont be any trouble or anything. We'll probably be out of town by tomorrow or the day after that, anyways."
The innkeeper reached down below the counter, and pulled out a key-ring containing two keys.
" Don't lose 'em."
" I don't plan on it!" Serena said, accepting the item, and then turning to go find her companions.
" There you guys are!" Serena said, entering the bar on the other side of the street. The duo looked up at her from their seats, at a table that was half-full of dwarves.
" Serena!" The Huntress shouted, stumbling out of her chair.
" Thank the Aspects you got here! These guys are kicking our fucking asses!" She said loudly, as she stumbled forward, where Serena half-caught her before she hit the ground.
" What happen-" Serena said before closing her mouth, as a wave of putrid breath washed over her.
" Ugh!" She shouted, dropping the Huntress and covering her nose. " How drunk are you? How is it even possible for you to get wasted this fast? We've only been here for like, two hours!"
Phil mumbled something before slumping his body over the table, where he promptly fell asleep. Her eyes drawn in that direction, Serena finally noticed the large stack of empty glasses and bottles on the table. Then she looked at the dwarves, who grinned at each other, clapping their arms together and congratulating themselves.
" Never take a dwarf in a drinking contest... me and Phil both got destroyed." The Huntress said, looking at Serena from the floor.
" Well then, why'd you do it in the first place?" Serena said, slightly annoyed.
" I thought it would be fun, 'cuz we were bored. Then we started losing. Then I bet my bow. Not very fun, after all."
" Why would you bet your bow, of all things?"
" I'm drunk, we don't have any money, Phil ran out of guns to bet, and also I didn't really wanna start stripping."
The dwarf sitting across from Phil beckoned Serena closer.
" What about you, little girl? You up next? Maybe the third one up will be the luckiest."
Serena shook her head.
" No, I don't think so."
" My bowww..." Groaned the Huntress.
Serena sighed, and glanced over at the floor, where a pile of her companions' weapons sat. She strode forward, and gently pulled Phil out of his seat. With a huff, she set him down beside the table, where he still sat, dozing. She sat down, and crossed one leg over the other, and put both hands on her lap.
" So, how exactly are we doing this?" She said, with an annoyed look on her face.
The dwarf smirked.
" First of all, why don't we exchange names. Makes the whole ordeal a lot more formal. My name's Luther. Luther Stormhood."
" Well then, Serena, would rules would you like?"
She thought for a moment.
" Okay. First of all, I obviously want you to bet that bow, and the guns, and whatever else they might've lost. I'll bet 5000 gold, myself. I don't really have anything else. I'll conjure it if I lose."
" When you lose. Not if. No offense, sweetheart, but you look like even more of a lightweight than the elf on the floor."
The Huntress sighed, and began crawling to a chair.
" And as far as rules go," Serena continued. " I don't care. Whatever you want. Whatever drink, as many shots as you want, just no weird challenges or anything."
" Very cocky of you. I like your spirit, girl."
He turned to one of his compatriots.
" Gunther, you're up. I think even I've had too many tonight." He said, jokingly.
The dwarf named Gunther swapped seats with him, and grinned at Serena, who did not return the look. They waited as the table was cleared off, and new glasses and bottles were brought over. Five shot glass was presented to each contestant.
" We're gonna start off with a bang." Luther said. " Five shots. Firebrand Whiskey. Do you think you can handle that, little lady?" He said, smiling at Serena.
" Yes." She said, keeping a poker-face.
All of the dwarves chuckled and laughed to themselves as the drinks were poured. Serena just wanted to get this over with, already knowing the outcome of this event.
" You can begin... now!" Luther shouted, throwing his hand down on the table.
Gunther grabbed the glass on his far right, and chugged it. He proceeded down the row, belching after he finished his last shot. Looking across the table, he saw that Serena was calmly drinking her shots one at a time. She turned her final one face-down, and wiped her mouth.
" Is that the strongest stuff they have here?" She said, leaning back in her chair.
" That's actually pretty impressive, " Thought the Huntress, as she spectated from a nearby chair.
" Well, it seems we've underestimated the little lass, doesn't it, boys?" Let's see just how long she can keep up with Gunther, though."
" Damnit, Jeremy! C'mon! You're our last hope!" One of the dwarves shouted at the one currently drinking.
The rest of the crew were either clutching their stomachs, or yelling at their last man to win. Serena calmly waited across the table, using her telekinesis to arrange her glasses in a pyramid formation. She watched as her opponent shakily reached for his last shot. His arm, quaking, raised the glass, but as he brought it to his lips, he couldn't complete the action, and promptly dropped the glass, spilling its content all over the table.
" I-I can't do it! This girl is a fucking demon, how is she doing this?!" He cried, before falling sideways out of the chair.
" Can I have everything back now?" Serena inquired during the following stunned silence.
" Well... fuck." Luther calmly said.
" I don't even wanna ask how that's possible..." Muttered the Huntress.
The dwarves begrudgingly got out of their chairs, and piled the collection of weapons onto the table. Luther actually looked rather impressed.
" Well, you won these back fair and square. I gotta ask though, for the sake of knowing. Just what the hell exactly are you, to be able to go further than every single one of us here tonight?"
" I don't really know, myself. All I can really tell you is that I can't be poisoned," She said, but then suddenly remembered her awful encounter with Ghostblade. " Well, unless the poison is extremely powerful. That applies to alcohol, too. My body literally wont let me get drunk. All of that stuff I just drank tasted like water."
" That sounds like cheating to me!" Shouted Gunther from the sidelines, to the agreement of some of his fellow dwarves.
Luther dismissed their cries with a wave of his hands.
" None of that, boys. She won fair and square. A bit unfair, but it was also a bit unfair of us to go up against those two." He said, pointing at the Huntress and Phil.
His company reluctantly murmured in agreement and backed down. As they talked, Serena walked over to the Huntress, looking displeased.
" Thanks." She said, giving Serena a thumbs-up.
Serena rolled her eyes and helped her to her feet.
" Y'know, that's a neat little thing you got going there. We could probably make some real money scamming people with that."
" I'm not exactly interested in that." Serena said.
The Huntress shrugged. " Whatever," She said, backing off of the subject. She carefully walked over to Phil, still feeling very tipsy, and violently shook him by the shoulders.
" Wake up, asshole!" She harshly whispered into his ear. " It's time to go."
The kobold jolted awake, in his seat, and looked around in a dazed state.
" wha...?" He slurred out.
" Come on! Serena got us the rooms. I think. You did get them, right?" She said, looking over her shoulder.
" Great!" The Huntress exclaimed, clapping her hands together. The drunk duo clumsily gathered their weapons, and the three of them exited the building. As the dwarves slowly gathered their belongings, and got ready to leave themselves, a duo of elves watched from a booth across the room.
" What do you think was up with that girl?" One said, being a broad man with long, blonde hair, turning his head to his female compatriot.
" Dunno. But something about her was... weird. You think she'll be on the list tonight? Maybe along with..." She leaned across the table to whisper, " those dudes?"
The man glanced over at the collection of dwarves.
" Maybe. I don't know. Depends on how much info Helda got from her at the desk. If she's just in town for one night, and it's just her and maybe those other two, then we probably wont waste time on them when we can get all of the others."
" She seems like a good candidate, though."
The man sighed.
" Then take that up with Sir Allord. Go tell him instead of whining to me."
The woman perked up, slamming her fists on the table.
" You know what, I just might!" She said, excitably.
They got up and promptly left the tavern.
That night, Serena lay awake in her bed. Her companions were across the hall from her, in their own room. Serena was annoyed, since she was only having trouble falling asleep because of the dwarves that took up almost all of the other rooms on the floor. They were incredibly noisy, and she was hoping that they would actually go to sleep at some point so that she could.
This boiled over into the fact that she was seriously trying to enter the Dreamworld, trying to make contact with Quintara Lotus for any kind of new information or advice she could give. She hadn't gotten any visions or been pulled in by the dragon ever since beginning her journey.
Other than that, she was quite enjoying spending time in an actual bed. Time on the floor of various buildings, the dirt, and couches made her appreciate this small luxury.
" Quintara? You there? Are you just screwin' with me and staying quiet? That's really lame if you are, just saying..."
There was no response. Serena sighed, and turned on her side, once again trying to fall asleep. What seemed like hours later, something happened. Suddenly, her ears perked up, and she noticed something. Or rather, the absence of something. The inn was dead silent. She sat still for a few minutes, listening to the ambient noise from outside her window, trying to focus on her surroundings.
" That's odd..." She muttered to herself.
Acting on intuition, she got out of bed as slowly as possible, and got dressed quietly. After that was done, she moved towards her door, and put her ear up to it. She heard nothing but the normal creaking of floorboards that accompanied any aging building.
" Maybe it's nothing, but... I'll at least check on those two," she said, thinking of the Huntress and Phil.
Serena opened her door, and stepped out into the hallway. She strode forward, and prepared to knock on the door opposite hers. She yawned, and raised her fist, but instantly froze. Someone was in the hallway. Slowly turning her head, she looked out of the corner of her eye and saw a large man standing between her doorway and the one neighboring it. She locked eyes with him, and her gut told her that she was not in a good situation.
She turned her whole body at once, adopting a stance for combat, and looked at the man.
" Wha-" she began questioning, before he pounced at her.
Surprised, Serena let out a small shout. The man closed the distance before she could fire off a spell, and he grabbed her head in his hands.
" Sleep!" He harshly whispered, setting off the dreamweaver spell. Serena stumbled, and fell into his arms. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head, and she fell unconscious.
Serena awoke on a very soft surface. Slowly opening her eyes, she realized that she was definitely not in the hallway anymore. Shooting straight up, she suddenly realized that she was in the Dreamworld.
" Oh, come on!" She angrily shouted. " This is literally the worst possible time to do this! I just got attacked!"
" Yes, darling, we know. There's no reason to shout, we can all hear you."
Serena whipped her head around, and let out an immense sigh of relief when she saw Quintara sitting at a table nearby, smiling at her. The Dragon Aspect was in a slightly different form from the one she had previous appeared in, now being much larger, and taking on a purple skin tone.
" Thank goodness. I've been trying to get in here for almost a week, I was wonder-" Serena said, stopping herself as she processed something.
" Wait, did you say 'we'?"
Serena panned her view to the other side of the table, where two other women of similar size to Quintara sat. Serena immediately started trying to make the connection, her mortal brain computing the scene before her.
One of them had extremely pale skin. Two light-blue horns protruded from within a neat bun of white hair, curling like that of a ram's. She wore a long and silky white robe, her only other discernible feature being the large tail protruding from her back that matched her skin tone. She sipped from a small glass of tea, and met Serena with an ice-y stare.
The other had a more natural, bronze skin. She looked rather annoyed, a frown on her face as she burned her gaze into Serena. She wore a full body of battered and bruised plate armor, showing that it was both extremely old and extremely used. A gigantic greatsword, relative to the woman's size, rested against the edge of the table. Her long, curly hair seemed to both be the color of fire and literally be made of fire itself. A large tail, as before, protruded from the back of her armor, but hers was barbed at the end, and sporadically and violently whipped through the air behind her. She was clearly agitated.
" This has really been a colossal waste of time. Thanks, sis'. We've done nothing but watch this stupid mortal blunder through the woods for a solid week-and-a-half, and the first chance she gets to prove herself, she gets knocked out in the first 5 seconds of a fight! I was kind of excited when she had to fight those kobolds, but then she turned into a gigantic pussy and didn't even kill any of them! This is fucking stupid!" The fiery woman yelled, slamming her fist onto the table.
The resounding shockwave seemed to cause the entire Dreamworld to rumble and shake, throwing Serena off-balance.
" Calm down, Vlaurunga. It's a rare occasion that Quin' even wants to see us. Before you get angry for no reason, let's at least see how this whole thing turns out. It may be quite rewarding to watch." The ice-y woman said, calmly sipping her drink.
" Yes, V., why don't you just calm down?" Quintara said, smugly looking across the table.
" Oh, that is it!" Said the Aspect of Fire, standing up. She grabbed her sword, and began unsheathing it. As soon as the blade was revealed, a wave of heat blasted out across the empty space of the Dreamworld, hitting Serena in the process. She braced herself, her eyes welling up with tears as she tried to look at the table. Suddenly, the heatwave stopped, and as Serena breathed, she realized that her breath was visible. She felt a sudden sensation of cold, and looked up.
" Let go of my fucking sword, sister." Vlaurunga said, gritting her teeth. The Aspect of Ice, Yvander, gripped the blade with both of her hands, causing steam to emit from it as the ice forming around it melted.
" Sheathe it. Even in here, you might kill the mortal if you start swinging that. Quin' probably doesn't want us to rend the spirit of her little toy just yet."
The two locked eyes with each other, neither of them giving up their grips on the sword.
At this point, Serena had managed to shuffle closer to the table. She looked up at Quintara, who wickedly smiled back down.
" What the hell is going on?" Serena asked, very concerned for her existence and still very confused.
" Oh. That's easy to explain. You see..." She began, grabbing Serena by the end of her short cloak, lifting her higher into the air.
" We've been spying in on your escapades." She said, turning and jabbing her thumb at an object nearby. Serena was unsure of what she was supposed to be looking at.
" What... what is that thing?" Serena questioned, looking up at the dragon that held her.
" That," Quintara began, " is what we call a 'crystal flatscreen.' It allows us to look in on pretty much everything and anything we want in the Realms. There are a couple physical ones out there; notably, I have one in my Tower. But anyway, we can just summon one here in the Dreamworld. It's very convenient!"
" So... may I ask why you've been spying on me?"
" Well, for starters, I honestly just wanted to show you off to them. I don't really have any powerful children or apostles or champions or whatever like some of my siblings do, and the ones I do have aren't exactly the brightest. Yvander over there only has a couple, and they're not exactly anything to write home about, either, besides one dipshit that got himself locked away in a pocket dimension. V. doesn't have any either, unless you count her little army of babies she's been working on."
She glanced over at the two, who were still locked in their Immortal Staring Contest.
" But you..." she said, turning back to Serena. " Have got some big stuff goin' on! You're goin' places! Meeting Dragons! Your fate is unfolding in front of you! It's entertainment for us now! I think it's pretty fun!" She exclaimed, poking Serena in the stomach at the end of each statement.
" Great. I'm the entertainment for your tea party."
Quintara laughed and set her down on the ground.
" So... uh... anyways, miss Quintara..." Serena said, brushing herself off.
" What exactly is going on out in the real world? I'm kinda concerned with the fact that somebody just knocked me out. I feel like I'm in serious danger right now!"
The dragon shrugged.
" Well, you probably are in a lot of danger right now. But who cares? Why don't you enjoy your time here. You'll leave once you wake up, considering that you subconsciously came here. I didn't drag you in or anything."
" That doesn't exactly give me any reassurance."
" To be honest with you, I don't really care."
Serena sighed in response.
Phil woke up, groaning as he clutched his head. He had a killer headache from the previous night, and he wasn't looking forward to getting up.
" ahhhh... fuck." He muttered, looking down at the Huntress, still asleep beside him.
Winding up his arm, he delivered a solid hook directly into the side of the Huntress' head.
She woke up in an instant, and, in a panic, her reflexes kicked in. She swiftly delivered a punch straight to Phil's snout, causing him to yelp and fall backwards out of the bed.
" What the fuck, you moron!? Do you wanna fucking die?" She exclaimed, raising her fist at him.
" Good morning, dear." He said from the floor, stifling a laugh.
" I will fucking shoot you, Phil! I swear to every Dragon!"
" Sure, sure, whatever. Let's go wake up the princess. I'm sure she's enjoyed her little rest."
The Huntress sighed.
" Fine. I'll go do it. Get our stuff ready." She said, climbing out of the bed. She began getting dressed as Phil whistled to himself, sliding into his rough pants.
The Huntress exited the room, and traveled directly across the hallway. She knocked on Serena's door, calling out to hear.
" Hey, wake up! We're getting ready to leave."
After a few minutes, there was no answer, and the Huntress was beginning to get angry. She banged on the door, much harder this time, and yelled to the other side.
" Get your fucking ass up! Helloooooooo~, are you even in there?" She said, reaching for the doorknob. Swinging the door open, she stepped inside with a scowl on her face, but her brow instantly furrowed in confusion. No one was present in the room.
" What the hell?" She said aloud, to no one in particular.
" Phil, get over here!" She shouted over her shoulder. He sauntered out of the room, trying to both simultaneously walk and get all of his guns in their respective holsters.
" What?" He said, approaching.
" She's not in her room, and the door was unlocked."
" What?" Phil said, slightly confused.
" I said she's not here, ass-face."
" Huh. That's weird."
The Huntress rolled her eyes.
" Phil, go ask one of the dwarves if they know where she is. Surely one of them saw her or something."
He nodded, and scratched his rear as he walked to the room next door. Knocking on the door, he received no response. Turning to the Huntress after a few moments, he shrugged his shoulders, and walked up and down the hallway, knocking on doors. Both of them grew increasingly suspicious as he worked his way past each room. Phil reached the room at the very end of the hallway, and stopped before he knocked on the door.
" What's wrong?" The Huntress asked, coming to his side.
His snout twitched, and he narrowed his eyes in concentration.
" I smell... something. Something pretty strong coming from in there."
He put his nose up to the door, sniffing at the wood itself. His eyes widened, and he turned to the Huntress.
" It's blood. Blood was spilled somewhere in this room. And now that I think about it..."
He turned, carefully sniffing the air the hallway.
" It's extremely faint... and I mean really fucking faint, but it's there. The scent of blood is in the hallway, too. And thinking about it... I thought I smelled something strange since coming in."
" What are you saying?"
" I'm not sure. Gimme a minute to find out."
He got down on all fours, and began sniffing his way down the hallway. The Huntress turned back to the door, and jiggled the doorknob, to no avail.
" Ah, fuck it." She said. " Serena can conjure some gold to pay for this."
She backed up several strides, and ran full-speed towards the door. She raised her leg, and struck the area near the doorknob with all the force she could muster. The door flew backwards at the force of her kick, the wood near the doorknob cracking and splintering. She then completed her breaking-and-entering by entering the room.
Peering around, the first and most obvious thing she noticed was that there was no dwarf in the room. She stroked her chin in thought, remembering how noisy the dwarves had been the night before, before she and Phil had passed out in their bed. Surely, she thought, they would've been as noisy leaving the building. A rowdy bunch of dwarves could wake up pretty much anyone, no matter how wasted they were from the night before.
Looking around the room more carefully, she searched around more carefully. As the room at the end of the hallway, this one was much more spacious and luxurious than the others. Instead of the simple, single beds that occupied the other rooms, this one held a queen-sized bed, and while also sporting a dresser and a nightstand on either side of the bed. There were no items or articles of clothing in either of these objects, nor under or inside the bed. As the Huntress got up from looking underneath the bed, Phil entered the room, and he seemed troubled.
" What's wrong?" She asked, noting the concerned look on his face.
" I could track the scent all the way down the staircase, but I didn't want to go any further yet. And coming back in here... It's really fucking strong. Did you find any splatters or anything?"
She shook her head, crossing her arms as she leaned against the bed. Phil's snout started twitching, and he began moving forward, following whatever he scented. He followed it until he almost bumped his head against the wall, where he leaned down against the ground, planting his nose against it.
" Here! It's right fuckin' here! There was definitely blood here in the last... seven, eight hours? So at some point last night. Someone did a hell of a good job cleaning it, too. There's basically fucking zero of it actually left behind."
He turned his head.
" Something's fishy here."
The Huntress nodded, a serious look growing on her face.
" Yeah. Something is definitely not right. I've got that feeling in my gut."
Phil was silent.
" Do you mean... like, a normal gut feeling, or one of those gut feelings?"
" The latter. Something doesn't feel natural here. I'm getting sick to my stomach feeling some weird imbalance of life."
" We should probably find Serena, then, right?"
Serena sat on the ground, her head resting on her knees as she looked on at Yvander and Vlaurunga, still unwavering in their struggle, neither of them moving a muscle after what seemed like several hours. Serena sighed, turning her head to look at Quintara at the other end of the large table.
" Uh... Mrs. Quintara? Is this ever going to end? I feel like this tension is gonna vaporize me at some point."
The dragon looked down at her from the corner of her eye.
" It'll probably go on for some time. Most likely one of them will get bored at some point, and then they'll be grumpy for a few years and refuse to socialize. It's very ridiculous, and also very childish!" She said, making sure to shout that last point towards them.
" Great..." Serena muttered. She looked around at the vast and empty world around her, before giving up and simply lying on her back. She closed her eyes, and had an incredibly obvious idea that she was quite angry that she hadn't thought of earlier.
" I'm sitting here in the presence of three of the most powerful and important beings in the universe. At the very least, I should be trying to learn something from them. I mean, I could be unlocking the secrets of the universe here!"
She quickly got up and walked over to Quintara's chair, the dragon curiously watching as she approached.
" Did you need something, darling?" She said, looking down on the elf before her.
" Uh... well, I was wondering, since I'm probably gonna be here a while, if I could maybe... ask you some questions?" Serena said, slightly nervous.
Quintara snapped her fingers, and Serena teleported into midair above the tabletop, flailing her limbs before smacking against the wood.
" Unnecessary, but thanks... I guess." She said, rubbing her head. She sat up, crossed her legs, and stared up at the Dragon Aspect, who looked back at her, waiting. After several minutes of this silence, Quintara began to get annoyed.
" Are you going to say something or not?" She demanded. Serena seemed to snap out of a trance.
" Oh! Sorry, I was just trying to think of something good to ask. Uh... I guess I'll start with something lame... what's the meaning of life? Do you know that?"
Quintara rolled her eyes.
" I don't know how you expect me to answer that. I have an infinite lifetime to do whatever I want. I could find purpose in anything if I tried for long enough. The closest thing I could give to an answer is that finding something that piques your interest is pretty... fun, I guess. At least, I certainly think it is. Is that a sufficient answer?"
" I guess," She said, slightly disappointed by that response. She perked up as she thought of another question.
" Alright, I have one that I'd just really like to know for myself. What was it like before the Birth of Magic? My dad told me a little bit, and of course I've read history books and stuff, but I really wanna hear your perspective."
Quintara grinned at the mention of Roygo.
" Ah, your father. Such a funny little man. I quite enjoy his company, even though he gets rather grumpy and annoyed whenever I show up. He really needs to loosen up!"
" Wait, what do you mean? You know my dad? I mean, I know he climbed the Tower of Ultimate Wizardry and got his wish, but what you said sounded pretty personal."
" Well, he is one of my favorite mortals." Quintara responded, laughing. " I love messing with him. He's so serious whenever I visit!"
" wait, wait, hold on, you visit? I've never heard about any of these 'visits.' Are... are you in a relationship with my father?" Serena asked, immediately jumping to the worst conclusion she could think of. Quintara couldn't help but snort as she held in another round of laughter.
" Oh, no, sweetie, no. I mean, I like your father, but he's not exactly my type. He's not really what I'd consider a handsome stud. Maybe if I had known him before the Birth of Magic, but definitely not now. Well... actually... eh, maybe. But it would take a lot of drinks. And maybe... hmm..." Quintara said, suddenly thinking.
" Uh... okay... but still, why are you visiting my dad? I'm gonna assume that it's not just to hang out or something like that."
" I'm usually checking up on you whenever I visit, but your daddy is a spoil-sport and doesn't actually want me to ever talk to you, though."
Serena stared at her, processing that information, as Quintara nonchalantly let out a small gasp as she held a hand to her lips.
" Oopsies. Guess I spilled the beans on that." She said, not really seeming to care in the slightest. In fact, she looked rather amused with herself.
" Wait... wait, what? You're checking up on me? Why the hell would you do that?" She said, narrowing her eyes at the dragon. " Who am I to you?"
" A result, and let's leave it at that for now."
Serena was confused by that statement for a moment, but thought she understood it soon after.
" Ohhh, I get it. Since my dad wished for great luck before he and my mom conceived me, you feel proud since it turned out that I'm such a powerful mage because of that. Wow. I guess it's pretty cool to learn that a great deity like yourself has been with me all of these years."
" Roygo, you bastard. You really never told her what you really wished for? That's pretty silly, don't you think?"
She kept her thoughts to herself.
" Anyways," Quintara continued, trying to change the subject. " I believe you were asking something?"
" Oh, yes! I asked what it was like before the Birth of Magic. I guess we got kinda sidetracked. So, what was it like?"
" Oh... well, I guess..." Quintara started, sounding somewhat uncomfortable now that she was actually trying to answer the question. " I guess it was an... easier time. Nobody had to worry about anything. Especially us."
She silently stared at her sisters, who paid no attention to the conversation at hand.
" What do you mean when you say it was 'easier?' Do you mean like how nobody could die? Well, I mean, until Phant-"
Quintara immediately snapped her head in Serena's direction before she could even finish that word, glaring her golden eyes down at the elf on the table. Serena felt the climate in the room shift, and turned her head to see both of the other Dragon Aspects turned to glare at her as well, their focus no longer on the sword between them.
" I would watch your next words very carefully, mortal." Vlaurunga growled through gritted teeth. The intense, silent stare from Yvander emitted the same general feeling.
Serena, narrowly trying to avoid the wrath of three deities, sheepishly nodded her head and gulped.
" S-sorry... I wasn't thinking."
" No, you weren't." Quintara dryly noted. " Next question."
As Serena contemplated something else to ask, Vlaurunga sheathed her sword and sat back down, Yvander following suit.
" The mortal says something stupid like that again, I'm vaporizing her fucking soul." Vlaurunga muttered, crossing her arms.
" For once, we can agree on something, sister." Yvander coldly replied.
" Maybe I should stop while I'm still alive. I don't wanna incite them any more than I already have..." Serena thought to herself. She looked up at Quintara.
" I guess I can't really think of anything else to ask right now. If I can make a request, is there any way that you could force me to wake up right now?"
" I can't think of any spell or method to wake you up, sorry. And I'm also not really in the mood right now to do it. You'll just have to wait."
" Okay..." Serena glumly replied. " I guess I'll try to pass the time somehow, then."
She gazed out at the vast emptiness of the Dreamworld, and simply sighed.
" What the fuck are you doing?" Phil said, quickly crossing over to the backside of the room at the end of the hall. The Huntress was busy planting the side of her head against the wall, evidently trying to do... something. She felt up and down the walls, pressing on random parts of it.
She turned to him as he entered.
" Can you sniff this part of the wall?" She asked, pointing to the area where she was standing.
" Isn't that where I found the blood before?" He asked, coming over.
" Yeah. Come over here and take another look. I'm trying to figure something out..." She said, gently knocking on the wall with her knuckles.
" What the hell is that supposed to do?" He said, crossing his arms. Annoyed, she didn't look back while responding to him.
" I'm trying to figure out if this spot is hollow, dumbass. Maybe there's a passageway here or something. It would explain why there's blood right here; someone was dragged through it. I would assume that if someone was getting abducted, dragging them all the way down the hallway and down the stairs probably would've been a lot more difficult and drawn a lot more attention."
" Me sniffing it wont help you determine that."
" Well then can you just do something useful, Phil?"
He thought for a moment.
" I'm gonna go talk to the innkeeper. Try to sniff out some more clues. Don't break anything else while I'm gone, okay?"
She waved him away with her hand. Phil shook his head and walked out of the room.
Downstairs, the inn was seemingly empty. Phil walked up to the counter and rang the small bell on top of it. After waiting for several minutes, the elderly woman from the previous night appeared behind the corner and eyed him suspiciously.
" I thought you and your little girlfriend were only staying the night. You forget something?"
" Actually, lady, there were three of us, and I'm trying to figure out where my other 'girlfriend' is right now. Did she go out for a walk this morning or something?" He innocently asked, trying not to arouse suspicion.
The woman's eye twitched for a second, but she responded normally enough to his question.
" I believe she did earlier. The younger one with the brown hair?"
" Yeah, yeah, that's her." He chuckled, planting his elbow on the counter. " She doesn't really like telling us things before she does 'em. Some kids these days are just insufferable, can you believe it?"
The innkeeper laughed back in response.
" I think the same thing about some of the youth in this village. I think your friend wanted to take a look around town earlier. Oh, and I'm sorry I couldn't remember how long you were staying, I'm usually very good about that. I guess my age is catching up to me!"
" Heh, no problem, ma'am. I think I'll take a look around town, too. Maybe visit some shops, find somewhere to eat."
" Ha! Good luck with that. Not much to do around here, I'm afraid."
" I'll take my chances," Phil said, getting up and walking towards the door.
As soon as he got outside, he sighed.
" Lying bitch. I don't know much about Serena, but I don't think she's the type to just wander off without telling us. I mean, we're the guides here. Something is definitely not right. Ugh."
Thinking of the Huntress upstairs, Phil shook his head.
"Hopefully I can keep a low profile while she... does whatever she's doing upstairs."
Phil walked further into town, hands in his pockets. His guns jostled in the holsters in his coat as he strode past the few people that were out on the street. He got some sideways glances, but he figured that was probably because he was a kobold. He hadn't seen anyone but dwarves, elves, and their gross hybrids.
As he walked, he came closer to the center of town, where a large marketplace full of open stalls was located. A healthy throng circulated through the area, making it hard for Phil to concentrate due to all of the noise. He leaned up against the wall of a nearby building, and began sniffing the air. While at first he only smelled the usual things you'd expect from a place like this, like the dusty scent of dirt and vegetables he soon picked up an extremely strong smell, and realized that it was the familiar scent of blood. He quickly began following the trail, which led him to the other side of the square.
Cautiously putting a hand on one of his revolvers, he stepped around a small stall and instantly frowned. On the edge of the square resided a butcher's shop, the people within going about their daily business. Phil slowly took his hand out of his coat, and looked on at the scene for another moment, taking in what he could see. Shaking his head, he felt very unnerved for a reason he couldn't quite explain. He began muttering to himself.
" Something really doesn't feel right around here. This place looks too... normal. Like any other generic little town out in the middle of nowhere. Everything's so mechanical. The way people move, what they're doing... it irks me. We know something is going on here. It seems like that's implausible, but something sinister is going on. Serena and a dozen dwarves go missing in the same night? Just what in the fuck is actually going on here?"
After a few more hours of investigating, Phil was surprised to see that the sun was beginning to go down. He had been all around town, probing into several places that seemed decently shady, like an apothecary and the before-mentioned butcher, but he hadn't thought that it had been that long.
" Shit. We must've overslept. Oh man, how long have they been missing, then? Probably around half a day, then... maybe more. Fuck. Who knows what could've happened to them by now?"
He took off in the direction of the inn at a quick pace, growing considerably more worried as he pondered Serena's fate.
As Phil turned the corner to enter the street that the inn was on, he stopped in his tracks. The street was deserted. He thought this was unusual. The streetlights on both sides were off, or perhaps the flames inside had run out of fuel. He slowly began walking forward, his senses now on edge. As he crept along, Phil put a hand in his coat, grasping a gun.
Phil walked further down the street, nearing the inn, when he heard the sound of a boot on the stone behind him. He slowly turned his body, where the man behind him came into view. A slim, lanky elf stood before him. Dressed in simple, normal clothing, he stood before Phil with a slightly crooked posture.
" What the hell do you want?" Phil barked aggressively. He already didn't like where this was going.
The elf proceeded to slowly pull out a large switchblade. Phil watched, narrowing his eyes as the elf unfurled what must've been a six-inch blade.
" I think you know exactly what I want, interloper." The elf hissed. He suddenly launched forward, a murderous look in his eye.
Phil, no stranger to this sort of scenario, was quick on the draw. The gun practically flew from its holster to his hand, and he swiftly pulled the trigger as he aimed in his assailant's direction. With one shot, the elf was down on the ground. The retort from the gun was still ringing in his ears as the barrel stopped smoking.
" Damn." Phil said, peering at the revolver in his hand. " That was the one that used actual bullets instead of magic. Why do I even keep this one?" He finished, not really meaning what he said. He hated weapons that used magical ammunition. That was the entire purpose of keeping speed-loaders on his person at all times.
As Phil muttered to himself, the elf rose up from the street. Phil, surprised, looked on at the man. As his eyes were drawn to him, he realized that there was no blood on either the ground or the man's body. The elf went to take a step forward when Phil shot him again.
The elf's body rocked back as his torso was hit, and he stumbled, but he did not fall as previously. He simply glared at Phil, and brandished his weapon as he took another step.
" Fucking ageless." Phil realized as he took aim again. " You guys don't ever know when to quit, do you? It's really annoying when I have to waste ammo on your useless bodies."
The next shot landed in the center of the elf's head. He lost his grip on the switchblade, and fell backwards in a heap, the illusion of his body fading as Phil stared down at a skeleton missing half its skull.
" Ageless... great. Gods, this better not be a fucking cult. I hate this shit." Phil glanced around as he took the cylinder out of the revolver and replaced it with another one, wondering if anyone else was about to approach him.
He turned to make his way into the inn when three more men came out of the shadows further down the street. They all wore dark cloaks with the hoods up, concealing their faces.
" Oh, fuck me." Phil muttered.
The one in the middle pulled a blunderbuss from beneath his cloak, the two flanking him pulling out revolvers.
" Oh, fuck me!" Phil yelled, diving to the side as the trio opened fire on him. He scrambled to his feet, feeling and hearing bullets landing all around him as he began running around the corner of the inn, being forced away from the entrance. He heard the heavy footfall of pursuers as he looked behind him, when another cloaked figure turned the corner in front him, pointing another gun directly at him.
Phil took a hard right, cutting into an alley between two buildings on the street perpendicular to the inn. He felt a bullet rip through his coat as he sprinted away. Breaking into the middle of the street up ahead, Phil realized that this one was deserted as well. He gritted his teeth before ducking, as another bullet from behind flew through the air above his head. Phil sprinted as fast as he could down the street.
The Huntress bit down on her fingernails, deep in thought. She was staring at the wall of the room, still believing that she was on the cusp of figuring something out.
Suddenly, she heard the sound of gunfire coming from outside the inn. She immediately stood to attention, her body tensing up. A few moments later, she heard an eruption of gunfire, followed by a series of muffled shouts.
" Oh shit! Phil!" She cried, turning to run outside, when she suddenly saw a figure rush at her from the doorway. She got her hands up just in time to grab the wrists of the elderly innkeeper, who was clasping a large dagger in both hands.
" What the hell?!" She exclaimed as the elf pushed forward with all of her strength, driving the dagger closer towards the Huntress' chest as she struggled to keep her away.
" Why the fuck are you so strong, you fucking hag?!" She cried out, falling backwards onto the floor as the struggle continued.
" Shut up and die!" The old woman growled.
" Fuck you!" The Huntress yelled, turning the old woman's hands away from her. She quickly rolled out from underneath her, the woman's dagger sinking into the wooden floor with a thud as it became stuck. The Huntress quickly got up and leaped onto the old woman's back, trying to dig her elbow into her spine.
The elf spasm'd for a moment, letting go of the knife as she brought her hands up to get the Huntress off of her. She managed to push back with surprising strength, causing the Huntress to land on the floor behind her. The innkeeper slowly got to her feet, the Huntress quickly rising up to attack again. She rammed the innkeeper with her shoulder, slamming her into the wall next to the bed. As soon as the old woman hit the wall, the Huntress quickly grabbed for the dagger, ripping it out of the floorboards.
The innkeeper turned around, where she saw the Huntress full-speed ram into her, digging the dagger completely through the elderly woman's torso, stabbing into the wall behind her. The Huntress backed up afterwards, breathing heavily.
The innkeeper began pulling at the dagger in her chest, trying to get a good enough grip to rip it out of the wall.
" What the hell? You're not reacting at all to that! Wait... you're not even bleeding." The sudden realization hit her a moment later.
" You're a fucking ageless!"
The innkeeper glared at her in response, not saying a word as she kept trying to unpin herself from the wall. The Huntress calmly approached her.
" Allow me to help you with that, freak." She said, wrenching the dagger out of the innkeeper's hand, pulling it out with a great amount of effort. Before the innkeeper could react, the Huntress immediately jabbed the dagger though her skull with all of the force that she could muster, the bone cracking as her hand was shoved through it, smashing a small hole through the wall.
The illusion on the innkeeper's body immediately dissipated, leaving a skeleton on the floor. The Huntress panted, trying to free her arm from the wall as she thought about what the hell just happened.
Suddenly, her hand came free, and she fell backwards onto her ass.
" Son of a bitch! What just happened?" She said aloud, looking at the corpse, and then the wall. As she did, she suddenly realized something, and got up, peering at the hole she had made in the wall. The other side was a completely dark space. Wherever it led, it wasn't to outside.
" Holy shit..." She muttered, reaching her arm through the hole again. She bent her arm to gain leverage on the surface, and pulled towards herself, the small part of the wall opening outwards into the room. She took her arm out of the hole, and peered inside.
" I was right. Shit." She said, getting her bow into her hands. She took a step into the dark, and glanced back at the hallway once more.
" Sorry, Phil. Hope you can handle yourself right now. I'm onto something."
The first thing that Serena noticed was an ache in her neck. She groggily awoke, blinking her eyes as she tried to adjust to the darkness around her.
" Ah... shit," was the first thing she muttered. She tried turning her head to the side, but suddenly realized that she was unable to do so. She panicked for a moment, trying to stand up to figure out what was going on, but found that she couldn't get up, her arms and head unable to move while she was forced to crouch on her legs.
" W-what the hell is going on?!" She cried out, trying to see something in the darkness around her.
Nearby, around a corner, two figures nervously listened to Serena crying out in the darkness. A large, elven man ran his hands down his long curls while a much smaller woman rubbed her forehead.
" Why did you grab her?!" The girl harshly whispered at her male counterpart. " We're in so much shit now, they had to go send people out to try and get her friends! What were you thinking?"
" I'm sorry, I... panicked. She just walked out. I was trying to make sure that none of them got away, but she just fucking woke up for some reason. I mean, what was I supposed to do? Let her scream or attack me or something? Seriously!"
The girl sighed.
" I really hope Allord doesn't chew us out for this. I'm kinda scared to go report to him. It was bad enough when everyone looked at us like we were morons."
They stopped their conversation when they heard an ear-splitting shriek of pain coming from Serena.
" Oh shit, what did she do?!" The man cried, grabbing a lantern off of the wall as he entered the room, his companion following behind him.
" AGHHHHHHHH! FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUUUUU-AGHHHHHHHH!" Serena screamed, regretting what she had done immediately. Through her tears, she saw a light suddenly appear, and a door opened, causing light to rush into the room.
Stacks and stacks of small cages lined the walls, with just enough room for a dwarf to stand or an elf to sit. Serena sat in one of these, the room illuminated enough to where she could finally see that. As a duo rushed towards her cage, Serena managed to turn her head enough to look at her hands, which were trapped to the bars of the cage by steel rungs. She assumed that was the same case for her neck. But that wasn't the current problem. The current reason for her agonizing pain were the steel mitts that had been placed over her hands. She had tried using Fire Magic to light up her surroundings, which quickly began to melt the metal. She was now facing the torment of burning hot steel melting into her hands, which was not helped by her healing capabilities. Chunks of the metal were now stuck inside of her hands as they were healed over, causing her an unbearable amount of pain as she was burned from the inside.
" What the hell?! Why did you put those things on her, Colt?" The female yelled as she bent down to peer into the cage.
" Well, I mean, she was obviously a mage of some kind, and when I knocked her out, I saw that she already had a collar on, so I didn't really know what to do. I thought restraining her hands was a good idea."
Serena, not trying to burn her way out anymore, simply sat, and gritted her teeth as she attempted not to cry out in pain again. She pleadingly looked up at the two people staring down at her.
" Man... let's just... back out of here." The girl said after an awkward silence. Colt nodded in response.
" Wait! You can't just leave me here!" Serena shouted as the duo walked away, leaving her in darkness once again.
" Come back!" She cried out. " Come back! Please! Please..."
The Huntress crept along a stone hallway, trying to muffle her footsteps as best she could on the smooth floor. Her bow was ready, an arrow already prepped to fire. She was simply waiting for a target to appear.
" What the hell is this place?" She thought, slowly turning a corner in the hallway, barely able to make things out in the dim light provided by the hanging lanterns on the walls. " Why was this connected to the inn? Did all of the rooms have one of these tunnels, or was it just the one at the end of the hall? Where the fuck am I going?"
The only answer she came up with was more questions.
As she came to a fork in the hallway, she noticed a door on the left side. She slowly crept up to it, and pressed her ear against it. She heard nothing, but there was some light coming from under the doorway. She placed a hand on the knob, and slowly turned it, waiting till it was fully open to enter the room. She stood up, bowstring taut, and walked into the room.
It was small, and square. It was also completely empty besides a large table pressed against the wall. A pile of some sort of material sat on top of it. As she stepped closer, she noticed a rancid smell filling the air, and held her breath as she looked around more. She faced the wall at the far end of the room, and stopped in her tracks. In the low light that she had been adjusting to, two bodies were chained by their wrists to the wall. It wasn't the fact that the bodies were there that shocked her. It was what had been done to them.
Reeling from the ghastly sight, she stumbled backwards until she hit the wooden table. Dropping her bow, she turned around to get them out of her vision, leading her to stare down at the pile of skin and small chunks of flesh that littered the table. She immediately felt bile rising in her throat as she also noticed a set of sewing needles laying nearby.
Falling on her hands and knees, she began vomiting under the table. She wasn't normally one to get queasy; she was quite unaffected by the sight of corpses or gore. But these poor souls had been completely skinned; most likely while they were alive, too. Her body quivered as she took in a deep breath, trying to calm herself.
" This brutal destruction of life... why? What made them do this instead of simply killing them? I don't understand. The only way I could see any reason behind this is if this is some kind of cult... but what Divine would want any of this?"
Steeling herself, she picked up her bow and got back on her feet.
" I know one thing," she said, turning her head towards the doorway. " Serena's probably in big fucking trouble."
Serena was in an absolutely miserable state. Not only was she in complete darkness, where she forced to remain in an incredibly uncomfortable position in the small cage, the dull pain in her hands never truly fading as they had practically been completely ruined and malformed under the steel mitts, but she was also facing another dilemma. She was desperately trying to control her bladder. She silently prayed to the Dragon Aspects (including the three most likely watching her ordeal) that she could hold it.
" A-at least Ghostblade let me go when I needed to... even though he was a complete bastard. What do these people even want with me? They can't just keep me in this cage forever."
As if on cue, Serena picked up a noise coming from somewhere in the darkness, that sounded very much like footsteps to her. She wasn't sure whether to feel relieved or nervous when the door swung open once again, and she was slightly blinded by a bright lantern as three figures stepped into the room. When she opened her eyes again, she angrily glared as she recognized the two elves that had left her some hours ago. She stared up at the other figure, who approached the cage and crouched down to be on eye level with Serena.
He, like the other two, was an elf. He appeared to be quite elderly and his skin was pale. His hair was a dark-grey, almost completely white color. Despite this, he commanded an imposing figure and what appeared to be a defined physique. His eyes were a deep, dark black unlike anything Serena had seen, and she couldn't help but stare into them, almost hypnotized by them.
" This is your... accident, as you put it?" He said, addressing the male elf as he continued to gaze at Serena.
" Yes, sir. I know it wasn't according to plan, but..." He responded, but was cut off by a hand wave from the assumed leader.
" No, no; this works. This is an excellent opportunity."
" Kara," he said, turning to the other cultist, who was surprised to be addressed. " This is the one you were suggesting to me last night?"
" Uh... yes sir, she is."
" Perhaps I should've taken your advice. I assumed that she was simply a random mage that was happening to pass through. But..." He said, trailing off.
" But what?" Kara said, curious.
" She is something entirely else. I can sense that much. Perhaps we can move to our final stage now... without the need for any more sacrifices. This could be an opportunity to form a seat for our Lord."
Both of his subordinates froze up, silently taking in what he had just said.
" Are... are you serious, sir?" the male elf said.
" Indeed, Colt. If we can use her, then we can speed this process up immediately. We might be able to shred years of sacrifice off if we use whatever it is inside this girl. Maybe we don't even need any of the current flesh golems that we've constructed."
All three of them now stared at Serena, who stared straight ahead, seemingly not paying attention to what was going on.
The lead cultist stood up, breaking eye contact with Serena. Immediately, she felt confused and drowsy as she tried to come back to her senses.
" Wait... what... what just happened? Wait, what's going on?" She said as the leader turned his back, facing his subordinates.
" Prepare her for a ritual and escort her to the main chamber. We'll begin at once, as to not miss our opportunity."
Serena didn't quite understand what was going on, but her heart began racing as the female cultist pulled out a key-ring and bent down towards her cage. The lead cultist exited the room while the duo opened the cage door, leaning in close to Serena. As they reached for her neck and arms to unlock the bindings, chills were sent up her spine when they made contact with her bare skin. Their hands were ice-cold, as if there was no heat whatsoever present in either of them.
" Who are you people?" She demanded of them.
" You'll figure it out soon enough." Colt replied.
As Serena was finally able to crane her neck and move her arms, whatever relief she felt was short-lived. After a brief sigh, the female cultist grabbed her by the arm, hard, to stop her from moving around, and held a dagger to her neck, actually beginning to press it into her skin.
" You're not going anywhere yet. Not until we make some preparations."