The sun crests over the gentle hills of Avonshire as you cross the border and into the region proper. It will be some time before you reach your destination, but if idyllic countryside suits your proclivities it will be a cheery leg of your journey. Late season sorghum stands ripe and lush in fields alongside the leafy greens and plump, colorful squashes common to the area. One can smell the more subtle scents of tilled earth and fall onions as one travels the road which ambles through the gently rolling hills and wooded areas of this calm, agricultural region. It is now autumn, and the air bears a chill promising the coming winter, as does the freshly changing color of the foliage to varying reds and yellows, likewise highlighting the verdant evergreens in their steadfast, immutable watch. The simple road winding through the countryside crosses a quiet river by means of a broad stone and wood bridge, upon which an older Halfling chuckles, fishing line in the water, extending a courteous grin as you pass by.
Avonshire is name to both the region and its most prominent township. To call the settlement a city would be generous; it seems only to exist as a hub for trade between the farmers outlying areas, central residence for laborers, and location for government tallies to be taken; census, records of birth and death, allocations of taxes, etc. The dominant race living in the region is Human, though coming a respectable second are the home and croft loving Halflings. Both races live in a stable, cooperative relationship with one another, sharing the fruits of the land openly and with all submitting to the same codes of law.
Related to its prominence with agriculture, the lifeblood of civilization as we know it, the region is known for its incredibly spicy peppers, the hottest and juiciest of which are grown at the Rentman Farm, an estate owned and managed by the same family of Halflings for generations.
While Avonshire Township is the most populous settlement of the region, the highest amount of day to day travel will be found in the fort town of Darenby. This is due to its prominent location along a trade route, drawing in all types of folk from the lands outside their borders. Most of these people are only around for a few days (or less) before continuing on their way. Fort Darenby maintains a token number of soldiers for the region and is the rally point of the local militias - which have not been called into action in many a year. Still, bored farmers’ sons might be found here, training with hunting bows and simple spears in hopes of appearing brave or impressing their peers. Businesses related to travelers and their needs, as well as the needs of the standing soldiery, have popped up over the course of time. Inns, smithies, stables, general goods stores, herbalists, outfitters, and even a few specialty shops may be found here, as well a number of foreign merchants who are just passing through but might be convinced to part with some of their wares for the right price.
It is actually Darenby where you initially find yourselves, summoned by letter to meet with a man named Gregory Arbalest. He has the distinction of being the Sheriff of Avonshire and local liaison to the King’s Soldiery, what pitiful few of them (for the region) are stationed at the fort. Your exploits are not amazingly well-known across the realms, forcing him to be in contact through intermediaries and contacts of contacts - it is well enough likely that someone you know personally put the letter into your hand, or an anonymous soul left it where you were sure to locate it.
Your budding reputation but not overly recognizable face were qualities which Gregory counted as an asset rather than a liability. Travelers came and went from Darenby all the time and a few foreigners wouldn’t draw too much attention at first. Whether subtlety would be the hallmark of this little adventure or not he did not want to tip his hand too early. The letter read as such:
- I pray to the Light that these letters find the right people. Grim times have called for unorthodox methods. It is with this in mind that I reach out to the adventuring community. I cannot go into detail about my concerns in this writing, nor can I have a direct hand in what must be done. It is my hope that these are the fevered ramblings of a bitter old man, nevertheless honor demands action on anything which could threaten those within my oversight.
If questioned, you have been summoned concerning Goblin sightings near the area. Provided you are interested in listening to my story, please meet me at nightfall at The Infamous Pear Inn, located outside of Fort Darenby in the region of Avonshire on the third day of Harvestide. If nothing else, you may entertain my ramblings with the promise of a hot meal and lodging for the evening covered, before you move toward whatever motivation beckons you next.
Inform the proprietor that you are with the Arbalest party. He does not know the nature of the gathering but will treat you well nonetheless.
The trade road, ordinarily a broad and well-traveled thoroughfare of hard packed earth and built up embankments, gradually increases in quality the closer one gets to Darenby. As soon as the town is in sight, this solidifies into a proper cobblestone path which continues into the settlement. One may find several persons, obviously merchants or the like, passing them on their way out of town. Some wave or nod politely while others take no discernible notice. Darenby itself is a collection of buildings with tile roofs and virtually nothing else in common, all clustered around the Fort, a circular, stone construction which dominates the silhouette of the city in the lowering light.
The main road cuts through Darenby like a great cobblestone stream, the banks of which are lined with shops and services which a traveler, merchant, or teamster might find useful. With the dying light of early evening, many such shopkeepers are trying for last minute business before calling it a day. Closer to the fort, other services may be had. Workers of metal and leather, masons, livery stables; skilled, laborious industry and the products they may provide. Off to the eastern side of town, past the rows of buildings lays a cemetery behind a fence of low, blackened iron bars, featuring even rows of marble and granite headstones. Curiously, this evening the sound of trilling, melodious violin music dances upon the wind coming from somewhere within. Farther out from the fort and by extension, the town proper, residences dot the landscape, each with a small plot of land utilized for the growing of things.
Streets are still somewhat busy with foot traffic. Mostly these people are Human, but a quarter or so of them are Halflings. Indeed, one might notice accommodations for the shorter folk built into architecture, most especially from Halfling run businesses. There are a smattering of other races of the people of the continent here, obviously not native to the area by their accents and attire. The safer bet leans toward mercantile pursuits, travel escort, or other business as they pass through on the way to more important locales.
Of the establishments available for a working entrepreneur such as yourself to get a tankard of ale and maybe a mote of rest, there is the popular (and packed full) Dancing Mare, the less flashy and more reserved Yawning Dog, and on the other side of town a lovely establishment that offers gambling called The One-Eyed Stag. The place you are looking for, however, is a little further away from the main road, nearer to the fort. One may ask around or one may wander about until it is located, but as soon as you see the sign, you know it cannot be anything else:
"The Infamous Pear"
The exterior of The Infamous Pear features a long, covered porch which stretches the entire width of the building. There are chairs present, a few of which are occupied by locals enjoying the brisker air of the early evening. The doors are wide and welcoming, made from the same heavy grained wood that comprises the rest of the structure and featuring brass door handles. Ubiquitous red-brown tile covers both the roof and the awning, a couple pieces of which might stand replacement soon. Windows bear thick, mottled glass, making them more useful to let in light than to allow for unobstructed vision, and even these may be secured with thick draperies on the inside and shutters from without. Overall, this is a well maintained, two-story structure.
Entering this building one detects a toothsome smell of roasting meats and baked bread, over lightly sourer notes of ale and other fermentations. A grand fireplace burns upon a mildly raised stage area, as do various candles which provide a deceptively abundant amount of light with the help of a wooden and brass chandelier hanging above. Several round tables fill the common taproom, along with a couple of longer, rectangular tables featuring bench seats. As you enter, a cheerful looking Halfling gives you a big wave and urges you to come inside, out of the evening air. He has the comfortable demeanor of a person attached to the Inn, quite possibly, or just an overreaching local.
There are others present here, eating and sipping ale. Residents most likely, as this is not one of the more popular drinking spots for the merchant classes. A couple sport partial uniforms, obviously off duty guards or soldiers from the Fort, proper. Some might be shopkeepers or the like. This place looks more like a local hangout than a touristy location. This place is not exactly hopping with business. That being said, the night is still young.
There sits a decently sized, round table to the right of the slightly raised stage. In and of itself it is unremarkable, being much like most of the pther tables in the bar, but a paper sign upon it sports a single word written in clear, legible Common: "RESERVED". Place settings and cloth napkins are arranged in front of the chairs around the table, as if it waits for specific posteriors to rest thereupon. Your collective posteriors, perhaps?
Behind the extensive bar is a middle aged Human, almost stereotypically cleaning a thick glass mug in front of a stack of horizontal barrels, most of which have a tap sticking out of them. If approached, he will immediately smile and become very "barkeep professional", asking what he can get you. If one mentions the Arbalest Party:
The bartender suddenly leans forward, an exaggerated conspiratorial look across his features. He actually lays his finger to the side of his nose and winks, nodding all the while. His husky beard wobbles in a way somewhat humorous to the casual observer. Suffice it to say, he looks like he's enjoying being part of a Top Secret Mission involving Sheriff Gregory Arbalest. "Oh yes, Stranger, yes indeed! Bit of a mum, if you take my meaning - MUM being the word, don't you know?" He chuckles, amused at himself for the moment. "The Sheriff and m'self are good friends. Best of friends! And any friend of Sheriff Gregory's a friend of mine, if you take my meaning. So! So... My name's Owen Hardy, and I am the proprietor of The Infamous Pear. That there," he points out, toward the energetic social butterfly that is the Halfling that waved you in earlier, "Is Mr. Guido Laurel, my partner in business (and sometimes in devilry, yes? Yes.) You ask either of us what you need, anything at all! Well, in reason, of course, of course... respectable businessman, you see. And we'll have you right as rain! Not the Autumn rain, of course, but just as right as a warm Summer rain, lots of flowers and the like." he gives an uncomfortable smile, and points to the reserved table near the stage. "Oh, but I ramble, so. Your table is over there, nary a soul what doesn't belong there will bother you, short of staff. Be mindful of May, she's in the back. Not one to trifle with."
Seemingly pleased with himself, he straightens up and re-assumes his occupation, inquiring with another wink, "So, what can I get you, Stranger?"
Naturally, this specific rant will not be repeated for every party member which shows up. Not word for word, anyway, but it might as well be. The garrulous nature and basically the same information will be relayed on each occasion that someone approaches him mentioning the Arbalest party. Owen does seem to like the sound of his own voice.
One detail does not escape your notice: It is almost the prearranged meeting time, and the Sheriff has not arrived yet.
Avonshire was about the farthest one could get from the coast, Alastor imagined. He hiked his pack up on his back a little further. He had been walking all day to get this...Fort Darenby or whatever the hell it was called. The quaint charm of the countryside had been lost on him some hours ago, when he lost his way down one of many identical country paths. Now it seemed he was finally on the right road and as a gust of cool autumn wind buffeted his cloak, Alastor's mind wandered back to the coast. The tiefling had many mixed feelings about his home but the sea, the sand, and that endless blue sky was always a place of comfort and peace to him. And maybe a scantily clad belly dancer enjoying a drink on the beach with him as well. Alastor smirked at the image. It brought him a little warmth.
'Still, I suppose this place isn't so bad.' he thought to himself as a halfling fishing on the river waved to him with a grin. Alastor gave a good natured wave back. He was surprised at the friendly reception thus far to his kind. There are those in big cities who would quickly ostracize him for being a tiefling yet these simple country folk seemed to hold him no malice. Yet another lie nobles tell themselves about those "less educated". Alastor pushed aside his disdain and pulled out the note Zern had passed him. Zern was his contact for work in a bustling city about a week's walk away from Avonshire. Alastor almost laughed when the gnome told him to look for coin out here. But it wasn't like he had many options and he figured it'd be good to get out of the city. Now he wasn't so sure it was worth the trip.
It was all very mysterious. A sheriff of a tiny fort town asking for hired swords? Alastor hoped, if nothing else, the meeting would be amusing. As he got closer to Darenby, the packed dirt turned to cobblestone and his surroundings began to resemble something of a modern town. Now all that was left to do was find the Infamous Pear.
"Dreadful name." he said aloud to no one in particular. He referenced the letter again and noticed it had no specific instructions save for 'outside of town'. As he walked, he glanced up and caught the eye of a handsome half-elf who was leaning against one of the storefronts. He had long strawberry blonde hair and emerald green eyes with a shock of freckles across the bridge of his nose. His simple clothing suggested farmer, maybe he was in Darenby just for business? Alastor couldn't help but notice that the hem of his shirt was a bit high, exposing a portion of his midriff. When elf saw Alastor had noticed him, he gave him a shy smile. But he didn't look away. Alastor couldn't help but grin in response and approached him.
"Hi, maybe you could already tell but I'm a bit lost." Alastor said, pretending not to feel the ache in his lower back. "Well it seems you've found me. How can I help?" replied the elf. His voice was calming and pleasant, like a spring rain.
"I'm looking for a place called the Infamous Pear. Do you know it?" he asked. The half-elf nodded and bounced up from his spot against the store. He pressed against Alastor's side as he pointed north. "You'll just take the main road to the other side of town, ya can't miss it. But the pear is kinda...well, sleepy. Only the merchants and cagey guards drink there." he commented. It almost sounded like there was disappointment in his voice. "I've no doubt but I'm afraid I have some business there... I didn't catch your name." Alastor responded. The half elf smiled again. "Veneth."
"Alastor, pleased to meet you."
"The pleasure is all mine. Well...Alastor, if you have time after your important business, my friends and I are gonna be over at the Dancing Mare. It's a lot more fun than the sleepy ol' pear." Veneth stepped away as he said this and Alastor felt their hands brush for the briefest moment. "Cool...maybe I'll see you there." Alastor replied.
"Maybe you will." Veneth said with a flirtatious wink as he walked off. Alastor watched him walk down street for a few moments before continuing on. Maybe Darenby wouldn't be that bad after all. He followed the road through town until he saw a swinging sign that featured a pear with a mask. Stifling a chuckle, he opened the door and found it was just as sleepy as Veneth said it would be. He navigated his way through the tables to the bar and asked about the Arbalest party, just as the letter instructed. The cartoonish conspiratorial barkeep pointed him to a reserved table. It seemed he was the first one here. Well, at least he would get to sit down. Alastor ordered a drink and walked over to the table, dropping his pack and sword and plopping down in one of the chairs. He sipped on his Avonshire mead as he waited for the others to arrive, a certain flirty half-elf farm boy still in his thoughts.
Marita stepped into the local temple of Darenby and took stock of its condition. It matched the aura of the rest of the town for sure. Sturdy and well-built, even if not aesthetically striking. For those who grew up in these kinds of environments or felt a connection to simpler rural life, it would be quite comely, comforting even. Marita belonged to neither of those categories. Her eyes swept across the room and took in the various deities who had their own small corners of the room with dedicated shrines and small offerings. It was about what she expected and had become accustomed to seeing since moving out to the country. In villages like this they hadn't the time or people to devote a separate church for multiple gods, and the culture in these parts wasn't strongly tied to a single divine so this would have to make do.
Unsurprisingly those enshrined here were mostly agricultural gods, along with a few scattered miscellaneous deities, sun, peace, love, mercantile. Surprisingly most of them were from halfling pantheons. Evidently that demographic was the most religious here. Or perhaps cultural osmosis just lead to this outcome. It didn't particularly matter to Marita. Although she would have preferred a shrine to Pholtus, as long as all the gods worshipped were legitimate she didn't care who exactly these people worshipped. She was an outsider and she was not here on missionary work. If anything, attempting to proselytize in every settlement she visited would only disrupt the holy work already being performed and sour local opinions on Him, she had learned that the hard way.
On the opposite side of the temple was a frumpy middle aged halfling woman dressed in clerical vestments sweeping the floor. She was either lost in thought or so focused on what she was doing that she did not notice Marita enter the building until she made a show of clearing her throat. The halfling flinched to attention, directing her eyes towards Marita, first at the amulet on her chest before meeting her narrowed eyes.
"Sorry for not noticing you earlier, dear. Allow me to introduce myself, I'm Sister Michele. What does a Lady of Blinding Light require?" Marita looked down at the priestess who barely came up to her belly button. Michele was all smiles, but her words and tone carried a faint hint of suspicion, perhaps even aggression. Understandable considering they were technically rivals in the same field, but irritating all the same.
"I'm merely here to pay my respects. I have no intention of trying to convert the townsfolk or impede on your work. If anything, if I am still in town feel free to call upon me for assistance. Marita Bärbel at your service." Marita performed a shallow bow, and this seemed to pacify any worries the halfling might have had. Her expression remained unchanged, but her body language shifted ever so slightly.
"I'm afraid I'm going to have to turn you down on that, but feel free to come back any time." And with that she returned to sweeping. Marita turned to leave, glad this particular chore was over and done with. She was halfway out the door before she stopped in her tracks and turned back around.
"You wouldn't happen to know where the Infamous Pear is, would you?"
"I'm surprised a woman like you would want to go to a place like that. Head West from here on the other side of the fort. Look for the sign with the masked pear." Wordlessly, Marita exited the temple back into the cool sunset. She took out the letter from the Sheriff and gave it one more read. She was surprised to have received such a message from Father Restoff, the priest of Bleakriver, a village about 10 days North where she had been staying for the past few months. As much as she loathed being lumped in with the crowd one step above banditry and mercenaries known as adventurers, she couldn't find it in her to refuse the summons. Something about the wording gnawed at the back of her head. There was no doubt that there was a lot more here at stake than simple goblins and she couldn't in good conscious leave it up to a lot of would-be criminals.
When she arrived at the Infamous Pear and asked about the Arbelest party, she sat silently through the barkeep's spiel, sneering and rolling her eyes through his speech but otherwise silent. It was all so tiresome to put up with. She looked over to the table and saw only one other seated, a rather large Tiefling who looked a few years her elder. Contrary to her expectations he had quite the well groomed look about him. Perhaps the son of a well off merchant? No matter, she took the seat to his left. It was only once she was seated that it occurred to her that maybe she had parked herself too close and this might be interpreted the wrong way, but it was too late to back out now. Quickly, she racked her brain for something to say before any awkwardness could set in.
As a set of horse pulled wagons were slowly making their way into Darenby, the people riding on them, were chatting enthusiastically about the near future. More specifically about their deals to be made and the gold coin they were to collect once all the coins were earned. Suddenly the back tarp on the canvas covered wagon opened as an exotic beauty with bronze tanned skin and 4 curved marble white horns showed.” I’VE ARRIVED! “ The woman’s voice filled the street where the wagons were, her foreign exotic accent from distant lands was quite clear.
She was dressed in a loose pale blue shirt that was mostly opened and revealing a lot of skin, a pair of loose blue pants and had a thick cloak to warm up in this colder climate. Her grin was wide, joyous and made her attractive face brighten up even more.” Kosara, careful, don’t jump out of a moving wagon!” A mature female voice echoed behind her as she turned around and grinned. The woman called to the man controlling the horses to pull to a halt.” Thank you for all you did on the road, Kosara. Your help was invaluable.”
“It was my pleasure! Grandpa always taught me to help people! Glad I met your family, Mrs Silverdam, hope we see each other in the future again!” The white tiefling with her bronze tan replied as she hopped out of the wagon. As far as tieflings went, she’d be a curiosity. Unusual coloration all around and of course the missing tail. She grinned at the merchants in the wagon and waved at them.” Good luck on the roads, friends!”
With that she skipped away merrily across the somewhat busy place. Darenby was certainly different from the other places she had visited on her journey so far. Sure there were similarities, but it had nothing on the bustling port cities or oasis reststops. Still it had it’s own charm and she supposed the nature helped. So much different trees in such curious colors! Kosara had learned this was what they apparently called Autumn . Such a mysterious thing! In any case, first thing was first, she pulled an envelope from her bag, looked at it and with happy grin continued skipping down the busy road, looking at everything new with unbridled curiosity and waving and greeting people as she went. Her original plans didn’t include arriving in these parts anytime soon, maybe never, but the world worked in mysterious ways it seemed and it all started with that letter.
~~~~~~~~~~~ Flashback ~~~~~~~~~~~
Kosara was enjoying her time, laying on a nice grassy field by the roadside, writing her her journal. A wagon with farm produce, a horse rider and a few others generally passed by while she did so.After a good long while, she pulled herself up and decided to continue on her journey and as she reached the road, she actually noticed a letter laying peacefully on the ground. Raising an eyebrow at it, the white tiefling, picked it up and gave it a quick look over. Then she read it.
“Huh… seems interesting. Wonder what's it really about.” She mused, rereading the letter and looking around. She didn’t exactly know where Darenby was, but she knew the general direction, so instead of her original plan that led to the opposite direction, she changed course and headed to the location indicated on the letter with a merry tune on her lips and a slight jump or skip to her gait. A few hours later, she stumbled upon a pair of wagons that were stopped by the road, one of which had it’s wheel broken and the people were trying to replace it with a spare.” Hey, you guys need help?” She called out… ~~~~~~~~~~~End of Flashback ~~~~~~~~~~~
“Ohhh...” Kosara was currently standing in what was apparently a farmer that bred rabbits that were bringing them to the market to be sold.” So these are rabbits?” She said, crouching to be on eye level with the small animals in the cages. The middle aged human man with a rather impressive beard, just chuckled and nodded, before reaching into one of the cages and pulling a fluffy bunny by the ears and handing it to her to hold.” Wow… So soft.” She marveled, running her fingers across the bunny’s fur.” We got nothing like this back home. Camels are somewhat soft… but not really the same.”
“Can only imagine.” The man replied, amused at the reaction of pure marvel she was displaying.” So what brings ya to Darenby, lass? I’m pretty sure there ain’t no desert anywhere near after all, must be a long way form home.”
“Wanderlust mostly.” She replied, still stroking the fur of the animal.” Wanted to go out and see the world. I grew up listening to travelers from distant lands talk about places like this. For a young girl that grew up in the middle of endless expanses of sand, it was like some distant fairy tale. I can honestly say that it did not disappoint. The views here are majestic!” She exclaimed.” Though I got some serious issues with the temperatures…” The white tiefling replied and carefully handed the bunny back with a bit of reluctance.” Say, sir, do you know where I can find this ‘ The Infamous Pear’ place? I was told to meed somebody there, but I’m new to this place.”
“Ye, I know the place. You go down this street and follow the road then on the second crossroads you go right. You will see it.” The man replied, putting his merchandise back into the cage.” Think you will enjoy the place better than the others. Too crowded those ones, much travelers there.”
“Thank you, sir! Hope you have luck in the marketplace!” She told him and skipped away, humming and practically dancing her way down the road he indicated, but not before browsing the wares on display or just sightseeing as she went along. By the time she finally, after a bit of searching, came face to face with the fabled Infamous Pear it was growing darker outside. The sign was adorable, she pulled her journal and quickly sketched it down on the page so she can write around it later.
Opening the front door with eagerness and energy, her smiling face was met by an equally cheerful halfling that beckoned her to come in.” GREETINGS!” She greeted pretty much everybody and waved to the halfling. There were others here, she suspected most might be locals, given what the bunny farmer from earlier had mentioned. With a grin and elegant dance like movements, she weaved her way through the place until she found herself face to face with the barman.
“Hi! I’m looking for a supposed Party of Arbalests!” She cheerfully exclaimed and made a face.” Wait no, it’s the Arbalest party, not party of Arbalests.” Kosara grinned at the man. She listened to the man going on tangents, but didn’t stop him, just smiled and nodded in understanding.” Nice to meet you, Mr. Hardy, name’s Kosara. No last name, grandpa didn’t give me one. Said I need to earn one or a title on my travels.” She stated and introduced herself in turn, before looking at the halfling.” Nice to meet you too, Mr Laurel!” She waved the halfling again.” Ohh, she sounds amazing, can I meet her later?” She asked, with expectation.” Well, we will meet if it’s fated. Alright! For me it will be… uuuhhh… don’t suppose you got any Cactus Water? Well, I will go with beer then!”
With her beer in hand nicely chilled with Prestidigitation, skipped along over to the party table where she came face to face with two people who were already there. A more typical tiefling with blue skin and bluish hair. He was actually rather huge. Very impressive and looked adventure-y! The other was a light haired nicely tanned woman that was roughly tall as her. Judging by the holy symbol proudly displayed, Kosara marked her as a cleric or priestess of Pholtus. She blinked at them, before quickly hopping at a seat on the opposite side of the table so she is face to face with them instead of to the side.
“Hello there! I’m Kosara, nice to meet you!” She smiled and offered a greeting. Her white eyes filled with joy as she took a sip from her nicely foamy chilled beer that after she pulled the mug away from her lips, left a nice amusing beer foam mustache with absolutely no worry in the world.
A few weeks back Kathryn found herself in celebration with other caravan guard members on a job well done. Though heavily intoxicated at the time, she was still able to pick out a messenger asking around for her surrogate father. It wasn't long before the messenger came up to Kathryn who at this point in the night was barely able to stand. "Excuse me ma'am. I heard I could find a Ser Lucas here? Do you happen to know where he may be?" These messengers and letters were not uncommon, Ser Lucas was a very capable soldier who possessed fighting skills that few experienced soldiers could challenge. Better yet, he was cheap compared to others with identical skills. Kathryn sat up slowly in her chair as to not make herself dizzy, the shifting chain mail being audible clinking with every movement. She answered with a faded accent as she spoke. "I'm his ward. You can pass any message you have for him to me." The messenger seemed to hesitate before speaking. "That's all well and good ma'am. But I was informed to give this letter to him directly." Kathryn frowned with a look of gloom on her face. The messenger, a young man who likely understood what was about to be said next held his own disappointed face. "Ser Lucas died just over two months ago. If I can help though, please let me." There was a mix of desperation and pity in her voice. She wanted a chance to prove herself, and she had a feeling the messenger wanted to get at least something for his efforts. "I am still his ward. I can take any letter you have for him." The young man nodded and handed Kathryn the letter.
She took a moment to read the letter and thanked the man. Leaving him a tip before he left, Kathryn planned her next move. She'd need a ride and passage to Darenby if she was to make it in any reasonable time. It was moments like this she wished she still had a mount to ride, but as things were she couldn't care for such an animal, nor afford one. It wasn't too hard for a woman in her line of work to hitch a ride with a caravan. What Caravan didn't want a well armed and well armored fighter to hitch along for the low low price of needing a lift? Kathryn finished her drink and stood up to get some rest before she prepared for the trip. She realized her mistake the moment she stood up, she had way too much to drink, and she had until she hit the floor to think over her mistakes.
Now she was riding in the last wagon of a trading caravan attempting to sand out a new patch of rust that had formed on her chain mail. Though she did what she could to maintain it, the armor was older then she was, and couldn't be stored in ideal conditions. She sanded until she noticed her last piece of sandpaper had been worn down to uselessness. When this job was over she'd need to buy some more. The armor would hold up for now, but if she didn't clean it up soon the surface rust may get worse and ruin the effectiveness of her chain mail. Her sword was also in questionable condition. It had been nicked, chipped, and well used in countless engagements. Her grandfather had given this sword to her father, and it was one of the few things she was able to take with her as she fled home. It may have been older, but she had no way of knowing. Ideally it should have been placed upon the family mantel as a symbol of authority for her family. The high quality steel had seen enough abuse that would have had other swords melted down to be scrapped for the raw metal.
The wagon came to an abrupt stop, her first instinct was to slide back into her chain mail as fast as possible, a habit that had been drilled into her for years. It still took time but she was fully armored up by the time the head caravan guard opened the covered wagon. "We're here. Darenby." Kathryn stepped out and nodded at the man before putting her helmet on. "T'anks." She started to walk off when the caravan guard spoke up. "What bring you here anyways?" She hesitated trying to remember what the letter said. "Was told Goblins. Seems like easy money if ya ask me." She said with a bit of a jolly tone to her answer. The caravan guard shrugged and the two went their separate ways.
Kathryn found herself at The Infamous Pear Inn before too long. As many buildings she had to bend over quite a bit before stepping in due to her rather tall stature. She still managed to hit her helmet on the door frame with a rather loud Clank. "ow..." Once inside Kathryn took a look around the tavern. It seemed rather nice overall. A place not too unlike the inn she had been taking on and off residence in for the last few months. She took off her helmet letting her braid down behind her. The place was comfortable enough that she felt safe enough to be without it for now. She walked over to the barkeep her chain mail shifting noisily with every step. "Excuse me sir, I am here to meet with the Arbalest party?" Owen the barkeep was a very pleasant man to chat with. He seemed rather excited himself to be here and to be apart of something important. She couldn't blame him. "Thank ya for the help good sir." When offered if she wanted something she requested a beer of local brew, paid for it, and left with a simple thank you before heading over to the table.
A lot of thoughts passed through her mind as she approached the table. First, she wasn't late. With how long it took her to get here she was worried she would be. Next, were the strange creatures sitting at the table she was to meet at. One was blue with dark hair, and the other she figured could have passed for human if not for the horns that were a clear indicator otherwise. Kathryn found herself starring far longer then was probably appropriate. She broke her trance and made her way to sit at the table. "Sorry. Hope I'm not late." She sat with a light clank as her chain mail landed in the chair. Taking a rather large sip of her beer she took the moment to evaluate those who had showed up so far. A tallish blue man with horns who at first glance seemed like he could hold his own in a fight, the girl with the horns like the blue man who seemed to have little clothes to her name. Kathryn wondered if that was personal choice or just a lacking of. Either way, it's something Kathryn wouldn't be as comfortable with. Granted Kathryn is never comfortable outside of wearing heavy armor. There have been nights where she slept in her armor due to the situations at hand. Then there was the other woman, a fellow human. She seemed ready to move on with the day, and seemed ready for a fight should it come to it. Thankfully the girl with horns had introduced herself before as Kathryn had arrived at the table as Kosara. She seemed pretty fun, already had beer on her face. "Nice to meet ya. My Name's Kathryn Pyke." Kathryn was glad she had a name for the girl now so she didn't have to keep mentally referring to her as 'The girl with the horns'.
"That pig of yours, is okay?" It was a fair question, if Victoria thought about it. The poor beast was wrapped from tail to snout in burlap, barely revealing tusks common to a more rural swine. Perhaps if it wasn't so gaunt the question wouldn't have been raised. Perhaps if it did anything except for stand there with unnatural silence in the back of a hay wagon. But there it was. The question was posed by an older fellow, a man of indeterminate years with more than a touch of grey in his short hair. He had been kind enough to offer a ride to the young lady who was now sitting in the back, her legs dangling off of the side. She was a stunning yet approachable woman who seemed very grateful for the chance to rest her legs.
Getting a closer look a things, the farmer might have chosen to simply tip his hat and move on. Indeed he was considering just that, but something about the woman changed his mind almost immediately. Maybe it was her exotic features, blending Fey with common Human traits. Or the way she smiled at him. And he had to admit there was something hypnotic about the cheery way she spoke, pleasantly with melodic tones. "Oh, Morty's just fine," she explained, scratching the burlap on the top of the animal's head. "He doesn't like to make a fuss." Moving her face closer to the wrapped swine, Victoria scrunched up her face and spoke as if to an excited puppy, "Do you? Noooo you don't. You're a good boy, Morty."
Addressing the farmer again, the cheerful Half-Elf asked, "Hey, do you want to see him do a trick?" Without waiting for a response, she smiled and pointed at her pig. "Play dead, Morty!" The creature unceremoniously collapsed under its own weight and lay motionless as the wagon they were in rolled along the path. It stayed exactly like this until they reached their destination. She was a day early.
Mellifluous vocalizations could be heard from the back of that humble conveyance as it pulled into the fort town of Darenby. Once inside, the farmer was glad to help the young lady get her belongings down. A violin case, backpack, a small pull-cart one might use for errands or groceries which contained a travel chest, and her pig. The man had no desire to assist with the pig, which was still laying there still as a corpse. With a smile, Victoria bid the man a good day, pressed a coin into his palm with a firm handshake, and looked to Morty with a hint of concentration. Shakily at first, the beast clattered onto its hooves and onto the street, accepted the rope handle of the cart from its mistress, and followed dutifully behind as she walked deeper into Darenby.
Victoria seemed drawn to the edge of town. Not before picking up a few things for a late supper, but very soon, she found her feet bearing her down the side streets of Darenby, nearer to a wooded area at the edge of town which surrounded a cemetery. It was quiet, as places like this tended to be. Mostly even rows of grey stone marking the interred, but here and there a low mausoleum out of direct line of sight. These interested her, almost bidding her to stay for a while, read inscriptions, find out stories of the buried dead. There were soldiers laid to rest here. Commoners. Traders. Paupers. Heroes. All manner of men, women, and children taken at various points of their lives. This ground soaked in a lot of grief since it was consecrated to the purpose of receiving the dead. But it also held hope. Knowledge passed down the generations. It held secrets of life that rivaled the greatest of libraries, if only one knew where to look, or who to ask. This place was dedicated to death, and there was granite, unilateral strength that could be drawn from it. Victoria stayed there for the rest of the day, learning what stories she could.
When the sky began to grow dark, she retreated to a mausoleum, surprised to find that it was not locked or barred. Curious (and a little foolhardy), Victoria carefully made her way inside and sat against a wall, her possessions and ever faithful, hideously gaunt pig in front of her as she watched the shadows of the small room play across its features and the two raised, stone coffins in the sepulchre with her, until the light of day faded enough that her Elven ability to see darkness as greyscale transitioned in. Victoria wrapped her cloak about her snugly, summoning a mote or three of magic to warm the fabric and abate the chill of the evening, if only long enough until sleep found her. As she drifted off, memories of why she came to this place surfaced.
It was a few towns over, on the edge of the region of Avonshire. Another city along a trade route, merely a point on a journey to wherever the road brought her next. She was just passing through, hoping to make her way to the sea. Chartering a boat to the busier northern regions would bring her to places more suited for her kind of people - those who sought and shared knowledge. She stopped for a few days in an Inn, trading music and merriment for room and board. As she might be traveling through the region for a while, stopping and getting to know the local customs seemed like a brilliant plan. She had not expected to find a sealed letter dropped into her hat - within which a polite person might have instead left a tip - and read it with no small amount of curiosity. Being that she was headed in that direction anyway, it wouldn't hurt to stop and take this Sheriff up on his hospitality.
It was already late morning by the time that Victoria woke. She had not meant to sleep this late. Oddly, it was probably the best sleep she'd had in a while, even though it involved her huddled on a stone floor, leaning against a pull cart and covered with a traveler's cloak. People might have believed that her Fey ancestry supplanted her need for actual sleep, but they had no idea what they were talking about. Victoria need to close her eyes for extended periods just as often as the next Human, Dwarf, or Halfling. It wasn't a trick she picked up from her forebearers.
The problem with exiting a mausoleum (that you shouldn't have been in to begin with) in the late morning was that there was an increased chance of someone seeing you. Without an opportunity to speak and smooth things over with the locals, there was also an increased chance of someone alerting the local authority. So when she exited the cemetery, or tried to, a pair of those local authorities insisted that she be brought to a magistrate for questioning. More than that occurred during her time behind the stone walls of the fort, which worked out to her benefit.
It was some time before Victoria walked out of Fort Darenby, proper. She waved goodbye to the soldiers escorting her out, even stopping at one point to sign something for one of them. Her letter from the Sheriff, or just the seal of his office upon the letter, helped a lot in keeping her out of trouble for the time being, but she had to leave with the promise that she wouldn't squat in other families' burial places for the remainder of her time in Darenby. She did return to the cemetery, however, to play a few, dulcet songs on her violin as a way of thanking the residents therein or any spirits which looked after the place for their hospitality the previous evening.
Victoria also returned to the mausoleum she used for shelter, though not to set up camp. She changed clothing, donning one of her best "first impression" outfits: A close fitting coat of orchid purple, black, and leather accents with a short train which flowed around her and resembled a longer skirt, depending upon the angle. Soft and shimmery silks could be glimpsed underneath, providing comfort and style. Slim pants of lightly mottled black were tucked into high leather boots which looked like they were recently purchased, and atop her red-auburn hair sat the biggest, jauntiest, bardiest hat ever, made of charcoal felt and black leather. A plume of dark orchid rose from the hatband, bouncing lightly with her every step. Victoria made it a point to apply various pigments to her face; a little red here or there, a touch of purple and smoky wisps around her eyes, a light dusting of powder, etc. Minimal otherwise, as too much making up of one's face deprived the world of her fine features, a thing which she thought was truly a shameful concept. Completing the outfit, Victoria buckled on a cut-and-thrust rapier which looked better suited to a soldier than a duelist, beautiful in its simple utility, and a long dagger. A bright, silver raven skull brooch sat fastened to her chest, a stunning point of duality to her upbeat bearing.
The optimistic Half-Elven lady pulled her cloak about her and set off. It was coming near to nightfall again, and Victoria had an appointment to keep. After her time in the fort, she was more anxious to keep it, too.
The Infamous Pear soon loomed before her. Victoria looked back to her porcine friend, still pulling the small cart behind it which now contained all of her belongings except for her violin case, the latter slung across her back like she was preparing to perform a concert. She waited for the flow of the environment to line up just right, as to give her the maximum amount of visibility upon entering the taproom. Victoria did love making an entrance.
The doors opened with a smooth, sweeping motion, admitting the image of the striking, young Half-Elven lady. A whirl of aubergine and darker fabrics swirled about as she entered with confident steps, moving purposefully toward the bar. On the way, she took the time to sweep off her very jaunty hat and curtsy for the Halfling fellow who waved her in, and completed her walk to the bar. "Oh, hello! So you're the proprietor!" A lightly concerned expression took her face for just a moment as she mused, "So you're the man I need to speak to about the..." Victoria's voice went to a whisper just long enough to get out, "...the Arbalest Party?" A knowing nod followed, which remained as the man went through his monologue. "Well thank you so much, sir. Before I go meet my fellow co-conspirators, I would just love a mulled wine."
About this time, Morty the Pig trotted in after Victoria, still pulling her belongings in that small errand cart. It stopped just behind her and to the left, per usual, earning some very interesting looks from the proprietors and some of the few customers. "Oh, he's very docile," promised Victoria with a disarming smile. Owen nodded and passed over a large goblet of warm, spiced wine, which she accepted gratefully. Her ring finger dropped into the goblet and began to stir it in a clockwise motion, tiny threads of magic bringing the wine up to a light steam. "Perfect. Thank you, sir!"
Approaching the table was interesting. This was a group of highly notable individuals, including two Tieflings (the lady just about as pretty as she was) a Human lady in religious trappings, and THE TALLEST WOMAN EVER. She studied them for a moment, keeping thoughts to herself for the meantime, and took an open chair. Morty set up behind her after nudging the cart into the nearby corner and sat down on his haunches, silently staring straight ahead like a mildly bacon scented, burlap wrapped pig-mannequin.
She swirled her steaming wine in front of her and took a small sip, smiling silent salutations to the rest of the table. "Hello," she said sweetly. "My name is Victoria Belmont. Call me if V, if you like. I assume we're all here for the same reason?" Admittedly, she didn't know what that reason was. This was more of a question to see if anyone else knew yet. "I hope we can all be friends after this is done. The last group I was with didn't feel the same way. Which is a shame."
In way of personal salutation, Victoria looked to Alastor and gave a polite monosyllabic intonation. Marita was presented a respectful nod. Kosara received a quiet and demure smile. Finally, Kathryn was subject to wider eyes and a look of budding sarcasm as the less wise impulses she possessed encouraged her to say, "Wow... you ate ALL your vegetables as a kid, didn't you?"
“Hmm?” Kosara made a sound of curiosity as she heard a female voice behind her and turned to look at the newly arrived person. She was left a bit speechless in wonder and amazement at the sight before her. That was one huge woman! But not in a bad way, not this one looked just the right amount of bulky and tall to be distinctly feminine, but appearing every part a warrior!’ Look at those arms!’ She exclaimed in her head in wonder. She had seen body like that only a few times in her travels, especially on a woman. The white tiefling was quite the admirer of beautiful shiny things and even beautiful people and attractive people. She had no real base thoughts, just admiration really… and maybe the desire to be carried about, but who didn’t like being carried?
“HI! No, don’t think you are. I just arrived myself too!” She greeted the newcomer with a smile.” That’s a nice name! Guess you heard mine, huh? Well, pleasure meeting you Kathryn.” The white tiefling said and looked at the woman’s beer.” Want me to chill that for you? Beer is way better after it’s brought to a proper chilly temperature after all.” She offered to her, still studying her armor clad body. She now really wanted to see the musculature underneath that layer of metal.
Seemed like this was the moment for more people to arrive as another one did. This one was a very beautiful half-elf woman. Those were some very nice clothes she was wearing! Mostly purple in color and that hat! The hat was incredible. She really liked the feather on it. She had the look of a bard!!! Kosara had seen many bards back at the tavern and quite a few dressed in similar manner, though she had to admit this one was in a class of her own.
“Hello, V! I’m Kosara, got no last name, yet to earn one or a title to be called by!” She greeted the bard back, before nodding.” I think we should be. Funny letter with a proposition, right? It seemed rather interesting so I followed it here.” She asked vaguely to confirm, but it was a bit of a rhetorical question. Of course they were here because of the letter, otherwise how would they know to look for the party of Arbalests! Wait no, Arbalest party! She did wonder if she was the only one who had randomly gotten her letter thought. The white tiefling then proceeded to grin widely at the snark about Kathryn’s size.
Kosara moved her chair over a bit towards Kathryn and looked at her.” Hey, Kathryn, can I touch your arms please?” She asked, unleashing the ultimate move, begging eyes technique, her upper lips covered in a brand new foam mustache from the last sip of beer she had taken.
Kathryn had little experience with adventurers. Most of the company that Ser Lucas worked with tended to be soldiers, guards, mercenaries, and others of those likes. What she did notice is what they had in common, the smart ass comments, the strong silent types, and at least one flirtatious one. Victoria had made her presence known pretty fast, and seemed decent enough. She expressed interest in staying in contact post contract and that sounded pretty nice to Kathryn. At the moment Kathryn had nothing to go back to other than the tavern she had been calling home for close to three months drinking enough to make herself wasted. Which unfortunately for her was a lot, so it was expensive. "Nice to meet you Victoria." Kathryn replied with a bit of a smile. Korsara was her own story, she seemed to know less of their situation then Kathryn did. Which wasn't a lot to begin with. She seemed fun. She was still getting a feel on the rest of the party. Mostly those who had arrived before her.
Like what has happened nearly every time Kathryn had gone to a new place in recent years, the comments began. Victoria was the first to make a joke about Kathryn height. As far as she could tell there wasn't malice in it so she wouldn't need to retaliate for it. Not entirely. "I suppose that is true. But that isn't the reason I am as tall as I am. You see..." She broke off for a moment, as if contemplating if saying the comment was worth it. Then turned to lock eyes with Victoria with the most serious face Kathryn could make. "I am a half giant. Though my final height can't be predicted it's not unlikely I will be doubled in height in a few years time." She spoke as if it was matter of fact and took another sip of her beer. "Buuut I suppose the veggies helped." She chuckled returning her attention to the rest of the group.
Then there was the responses of Kosara. Starting things off with with a nice offer of cooling her beer for her. "There's not much left, but if you don't mind I'd love it. Thank you very much." Kathryn had just met this woman and she already liked her. If there was any weak spot for the giant woman it was her love of beer. "I see you're also a woman with a taste for the finer things." Kathryn spoke while lifting up her beer. Then Kathryn knew something was up when Kosara made her way to Kathryn's side and started staring at her the way that Kathryn stared at a barrel of beer from her homeland. The request to touch her arms through her off pretty drastically. She had been on the receiving end of a few comments, most much more inappropriate then this. So hearing this threw her off quite a bit. She hesitated for a moment, and was ready to tell her would be admirer a firm no. But when she turned to at least look her in the eyes of the girl something about those eyes. Combined with the beer mustache and that face... "I uh... Okay..." Kathryn held out one of her arms in front of Kosara so she could feel it. Then with her other hand took another swallow of her beer nearly finishing it.
Alastor greeted each newcomer coolly. It was strange, it was a little like when he left home to pursue this life. Meeting strangers in a strange place to do a probably strange job. It had been a year since he left the Kadosh estate so he had made some friends in Dizar, the city where he met Zern. But coming here almost felt like starting from square one again. Not that he was going to stay. Alastor doubted he would have much reason to stay in Avonshire after this job.
"Alastor, pleased to meet you." he said casually to each of his new teammates. The mead he was drinking was bitter. He supposed he should have expected it to be. He wasn't even sure why he ordered it, he didn't particularly like beer. Alastor guessed he thought he would look more...competent drinking a beer. Gods, that sounded daft even in his head. He instead focused his attention on his new companions. Kosara was the most...eye-catching, one could say. With lovely white horns and dressed in, funnily enough, a belly dancer's outfit. He silently wondered if she was from the coast, the attire was certainly similar. But he kept the question to himself. Best not to get too familiar just yet. Who knows if she'll survive the job. His train of thought was interrupted by the clerical looking woman.
"Any word from the sheriff?"
"Nothing other than his letter. You'd think he'd be here to meet us." Alastor pondered aloud between sips of mead. He didn't know why he was still drinking it. He glanced at the half-elf that had just walked in and gave her his greeting. She carried a violin case on her back. A musician? Alastor had heard of bards who also did some adventure work on the side but he had never met one himself. But there was something off about this bard. A certain feeling she gave him when he looked at her. The feeling grew stronger when he noticed the creature at her side. A boar, covered in wrappings. Alastor knew what boar acted like. His uncle used one to hunt. They're noisy and inquisitive creatures. Constantly snuffling and grunting about. But not this one. It stood silently. Like a ghost. There was something unnatural about it, Alastor could feel it. The elf, Victoria, gave him a polite nod. Alastor was sure his faced betrayed his suspicion. His sword was resting against the wall next to his chair and pack. He pulled it a little closer to him.
Then Kathryn arrived. Alastor was a big guy but this woman was nearly a head taller than him. He raised his mead at her approach, trying his best to look as not intimidated as possible. She seemed nice enough, Kosara was particularly taking a liking to her. Alastor was taking another drink of his mead (he paid for the damn thing, might as well finish) when he heard Kathryn say she was a half giant and she could still grow. He choked on his beer and had to painfully muscle it down to avoid spitting it up on the table.
"Bloody hell, you're gonna get bigger!?" he asked in an incredulous tone.
"These hours are unbecoming of a cleric, you know. Hey! Listen! I know you're faking!" A fey creature of diminutive size flutters about, arms almost as cross as its feelings toward the dormant human crumpled up between basic linen blankets. This song and dance has played out many times before, and instinctively Radish rolls effortlessly in the air to avoid Mona's attempted swat. He gives an audible huff, wings flicking like an insect's and the only source of any constant noise. The church in which they are staying is a simple building, not like the one she visited in the actual township, housing pantheistic idols and on the opposite end of Darenby from where she needed to be later that day.
"I'm not a cleric, Radish." A tired voice comes from the pile of cloths, nonetheless her hand that braved the cool air first slowly pulled away at the sheets until she could breathe the fresh air. As fresh as it can be, in a dusty upstairs room that can be considered more a closet. Only enough space for a single mattress fit for one average human and an old, rickety wooden end table. On one hand, a dirty window allowed for the sunlight of midday to shine through. On the other, this window has not been properly maintained since, well perhaps since it was built. Autumn air has crept in through the night, reminding Mona that she should invest in a cotton blanket or cloak soon. Today soon.
With a great sigh, she removes the rest of the linens and bunches them all to the wall that the bedframe is pressed against. Mona sits up reluctantly, Unicorn pendant slowly slipping out of its impression in her skin and her simple beige night gown creasing around her thighs until she smooths it out. "I'm painfully aware, Master." The cogs in her head always need a few minutes to process her situation on waking up, and as such her gaze groggily hovers to where Radish now sits on the edge of the end table. His attitude never has been, and still isn't, condescending or spiteful. Instead he leans back, arms propping him up as he kicks his legs and giving her a genuine, if small, smile. His dimples would be something to envy, if Mona were to accept that it comes with that dull red hair. That she can go without.
Beside the Sprite is the heavily-scrunched letter, flattened and squashed so many times it is more thin fabric than pressed parchment. A vague call-to-arms of discretion, a trait that is actually quite up Mona's alley. She recalls how she came in possession of such an envelope and scoffs, finally giving Radish a smile that he had been longing for. By now, Mona is accustomed to his companionship. The little guy has proven useful in not only her ceremonies but also the few hostile encounters she came across in recent times. Sure, he prattles on and on about All Things Good that she must preach about, but he never seems to deter her from taking exciting opportunities (as long as they get to help someone in the process).
"Alright, Radish. Ready to scam some folks?"
"Not scam," he responds, as if reminding her.
"I know, I know. Just testin' ya." She shoots him a playful glance as she finally stands up, nearly hitting her head on the slanted ceiling. "Didn't get me that time," she mumbles, uncomfortably changing her posture so she can change into her day clothes without bumping into anything; she does so unsuccessfully, forcing Radish to withdraw his legs as she nearly trips into the small table while removing her night gown.
⏀ ⏄ ⏂ ⏅ ⏄
About fifteen minutes pass before she emerges from her room, fully dressed for the day's errands. Her clerical vestments are soft cream tones, flowing freely from the waist down and just to her knees. Considering an adventuring group is coming together, she opted to wear the leather armor she was gifted a few weeks prior: a vest that covers her torso in a nice shade of chocolate, with matching forearm braces and knee-high boots. Supposedly the boots are meant more for urban walkways, but they have proven comfortable and durable for regular outings. The ever-present Unicorn amulet acts as a centerpiece to it all, the only decoration to an otherwise simple and attractive appearance. Her off-white hair is put up into a loose plait, fixed up from her messy overnight slumber.
The letter mentioned her presence is not required until the twilight hours, so there is plenty of time to visit the fort proper and practice her bedside affectations. Before she sets off, she does a once-over of her immediate belongings one more time. Dagger? Check. Component pouch? Check. Coin pouch? Check. With a satisfactory nod, Mona closes the door behind her (and it slowly creaks back open as she can't lock it from the outside) and takes the stairs.
⏀ ⏄ ⏂ ⏅ ⏄
The visit to the keep’s clinic was uneventful in itself. She had used some of her basic healing, but most of the work had been done by the time she came around, so she spent the next few hours giving ailing guards some peace of mind by word of All Things Good. Eventually, she figured it close to the time she should head back to the temple, grab some grub, and finally go to the Infamous Pear. She knows exactly where it is, having explored several days ago when she made it to town. So off she goes to the temple once more, hoping to get to her room for a quick snack she packed away.
Her boots stomp loudly on the old wooden steps, much to her dismay, but she isn't trying to sneak about either. She'd rather be seen leaving in a hurry than caught lurking about. Neither of which happen, of course, as she is beset by the halfling cleric known to everyone as Sister Michele. The lady is nice enough, though they got off on the wrong foot as Mona believed that Michele would be more of a pushover. She was anything but. Turns out she is devout in her particular faith, and while she treated all the faithful woes with a smile, Sister Michele is also very pragmatic. An evening dedicated to sermons and shows of Good power by Mona eventually won her over, allowing a fellow follower to take advantage of the free room.
"Good afternoon, Sister Holcombe. Or should I say evening?" She feigns pondering the sentiment, a forefinger to her chin as she eyes Mona with close inspection.
”Good evening, Sister Michele,” Mona answers sheepishly. True, within herself she would simply scoff at the woman, but this act has started to come more naturally to her, both to her fortune and disappointment. ”How fares your godly duties?”
“Today is a blessed day,” she says, leaning in closer to Mona with a knowing smile as she looks up. “Your preparations yesterday around the temple has inspired the faithful men and women that came in this morning. Some have made it known to me that they wish to do some good works around town, to keep up the good image.”
Mona offers a gentle smile in return, crouching down to place a soft hand upon Sister Michele’s shoulder. ”As the Book of Evensongs, Heavenly Doctrine, says, ‘Allelujah! For my works shine in light and impurities are cleansed through devotion. ‘Allelujah! Where I walk, others may follow without stumbling.”
Sister Michele’s face can’t hold back a smile as Mona finishes her verse and gives an enthusiastic nod. “You’re a testament to All Good Things as you preach.” With a pat on Mona’s hand, the halfling turns on her heels and shuffles back before stopping mid-step and looking at Mona over her shoulder. The halfling almost caught Mona giving a mild stinkeye, but instead she says, “Oh, and another cleric stopped in before you came in. I don’t know if she’s just passing through or if she’ll be here for a few days, but she did mention the Infamous Pear. A Lady of Blinding Light, she is.”
”Ah, thank you, Sister Michele. I’ll keep my eyes open for her in case the need arises.” Mona gives a slight bow and Sister Michele nods once more before returning to whatever her task was.
So people are already coming in, I should go check it out now. Surely the place has decent food. And so she takes the short trek across town at more than a stroll’s pace but comfortable enough for her to warmly smile and wave at any who pass her by. Following loyally along is Radish, only about a foot behind her in the air. His smile and gestures are more genuine, but nobody knows that.
⏀ ⏄ ⏂ ⏅ ⏄
Upon reaching the point she recognizes the Infamous Pear’s sign, raises a brow. The night is still young, but even so the porch is fairly bare. A halfling seems to be waving people in with energy, including her. At least it’s homely. She walks up to the doors and accepts the open invitation with a proper ”Thank you”, Radish taking the chance to swoop in and land on her shoulder while she transitions indoors. Immediately she is hit with wonderful fragrances of cooked meats, vegetables, and drinks. She murrs quietly to herself, taking in a deep breath and opening her eyes to the bearded man behind the bar.
With a big smile, thanks to the thought of good filling food, she approaches the bar.
”Good evening, I’m here for the Arbalest Party.” Mona reacts with a quiet yelp as the man comes in hot as if speaking in conspiratorial tones. She turns halfway to look back at the table he gestures to, finding that it is already occupied by several folks. Definitely outsiders, on account of their appearances alone. She gives him a quiet thanks and a simple wave to Mr. Guido Laurel before asking one last thing.
”Yes, I’d like a roast beef. I’ll take any side of greens. And a red wine, any’s fine.” She set her hands on the bar gently as she spoke, and once the request was received she turns once more to the table in the corner. Owen says behind her that he’ll make sure her drink and food are brought out together shortly. A moment passes before she realizes she has been biting her lower lip, and corrects her expression.
”Alright, Radish. Don’t embarrass me in front of these guys.” The Sprite’s only response is a pair of crossed arms and an arched brow.
When Mona steps up to the corner table, the blue-skinned and well-trimmed tiefling yells out something she wasn’t prepared to hear so she misses the front end of it. Nonetheless, she finds an empty chair and stands behind it for a moment, hands grasping the back and top of it.
”Good evening, everyone. I’m Mona Holcombe. It’s a pleasure to meet you all.” She gives a small bow before mousily stepping around the chair to sit in it. She finally takes this moment to take in everyone that’s come in so far.
First thing’s first, the cleric Sister Michele mentioned. An amulet gives that away easily. She has features like an elf, though the ears and other defining appearances all point to her being human. She can’t gather much on her personality yet, but she has met several clerics before and they all tend to be rule sticklers.
Next up is a horned girl, wearing a cloak over what she may be able to spy as some rather revealing clothing. Good for you, girl. Doesn’t make much sense here, but good for you. The energy she gives off is actually welcome, given the rather sleepy place they all find themselves in.
A large woman in full armor should have got her attention first, but she seems more calm rather than superior. Another surprise she’ll take, but what intrigues her is the interaction between her and the horned girl. They seem to get along well, considering how they are all supposedly strangers.
Last is the girl with the violin and… is that a small bear behind her? No, it has tusks, but why is it wrapped up? Bizarre. Her clothes are very pretty, though. If she plays music, it’ll be the first time she has grouped up with a real entertainer.
”Don’t think I’ve seen this many ladies work on a single quest before.” She looks around the table as Radish takes a seat on her shoulder, but her eyes stop on the blue tiefling again. ”Not to forget you, of course. Just a… serendipitous encounter.”
I ended up going super-overboard with the pre-Darenby section and so decided to give it a hider to separate it from the main post flow, since I didn’t just want to throw away all that hard work. Anyone who wants to embark down the rabbit hole and have a little more context surrounding why Hugh acts the way he does (and why he’s even on this quest) feel free to read. But if you want to just take him at a more surface level IC, let the secrets lie where they may and dig it up later at your leisure. ;)
2 Weeks Ago:
The Fertile Gourmand.
As always, Hugh preferred not to question the thought process behind that name, as he stepped inside one of his favorite haunts, sucking in a refreshing inhale at the succulent scent of boiling meats and buttery bread. The rattle of mostly wooden dinnerware and the hum of the tavern’s afternoon Bard stirred forth in the average visitor a sense of festive comradery.
Half tavern, half restaurant outright, the Fertile Gourmand was the pride and joy of the town of Weathersby… at least as far as the culinary went. It wasn’t anything a noble wouldn’t turn their nose up at, but the fact that a noble would even glance in its direction with consideration was worthy of acknowledgement.
As usual, the restaurant was far too bustling for Hugh’s tastes, but such was the price one paid for competence and discretion. Omnipresent noise like this made the task of holding secluded meetings all the easier, without fear of eavesdroppers. Of course, Hugh wasn’t here for a secret meeting, not exactly.
Weaving his way through packed tables, Hugh found himself a seat at one of the few empty stools at the main bar. As this was a place that adventuring groups tended to gather together, the most popular seating tended to be the large tables, which left the bar as the only place a lone traveler could usually hope to sit.
Across from him, behind the counter, a stocky dwarven woman bustled about taking orders and serving meals to the few customers that occupied the barstools. Hugh’s nose habitually wrinkled at the sight of several frothing beers in her hands, and the barkeep’s blue eyes sparkled with quick recognition at the sight of him. He didn’t know her age, but he could only assume it to be young to middle-aged by dwarven standards, considering that her auburn hair, currently pulled back into a tight bun, had yet to sprout any grey.
Hugh waited silently, idly considering the menu, as he shucked his backpack to the floor in front of him against the bar. Eventually, after a minute of watching the barkeep, she approached with a far too familiar grin on her lips.
“Got any work for me, Greta?” Hugh led, hoping against hope to head off any small talk. Such hopes were plainly in vain.
“Well, if it isn’t my favorite customer!” Greta chortled, as she leaned over, one arm lying flat against the countertop.
“I’m sure,” Hugh replied wryly, already fighting to keep his expression from sagging at the barkeep’s usual exuberance. “But we’ve done this song and dance before. The work comes first; I’m in the market for something quick and clean, preferably tailored to my speciality. You know it well, so I’ll trust your discretion on the matter.” At her telling frown, he sighed and relented somewhat, rather unwilling to build any bad blood between himself and a valued contact, even though he would much rather she respect his desire to keep things at arm’s length. “If it makes you feel any better, I do have time to take a meal.” Hugh’s eyes panned over the menu displayed proudly upon the wall. “The roast beef and fried potato soup will do as well as a half-loaf of your cheese-stuffed bread. And hmmm, I’ve recently recovered from a broken arm, so some extra bone meal in the broth couldn’t hurt. Oh, and a mug of grape juice, thanks.”
Greta nodded. “Good to see you eating heavy today. Too little meat on those bones if you ask me.” The barkeep’s eyes had lightened at his acquiescence, and she quickly rattled off his order to the cook, before turning back to him. “So, broken arm, eh? That’s why you’ve been out of touch these past weeks?”
Hugh waggled his left arm, patting it for effect, as he rolled his eyes openly. “Hardly. The break was seen to by a temple healer, but I’ve been taking more low-risk jobs to make back the cost of hiring out those services.”
Greta brought her hands to her sternum in mock shock. “Oh dear, I didn’t know you had other informants on the side.” She batted her eyelashes dramatically.
“In your dreams, old hag,” Hugh instantly scoffed, grimacing.
“Well, I never!” Greta’s grin betrayed her true amusement on the matter, as she clucked her tongue. “You’ve really got to get yourself a girl-”
“Aaand, we’re officially done with this line of conversation,” Hugh snapped lightly, unable to hide his true irritation at the topic. He frowned at Greta’s unashamed smirk. “The jobs, Greta. Preferably something that doesn't involve giant boars… again.”
“So cautious,” Greta tutted, as she reached beneath the counter and shuffled through several sheets of parchment. “Wouldn’t need to be so picky if you’d just take some companions and find yourself a nice adventuring group.”
Hugh couldn’t help snorting. “Yes, because that’s worked out so very well every other time I tried it.” At Greta’s frown, he shook his head. “I’m a bounty hunter, not a treasure seeking tomb raider and certainly not a hero. There’s plenty of those already, and the Kingdom’s hardly any worse off if I find my fortunes elsewhere. Honestly, in my line of work, throwing more heads at the problem is only ever more trouble than it’s worth.”
Fortunately, Greta seemed to have sensed the futility of continuing this line of dialogue today and finally slid over several requests. Hugh poured over them with a discerning eye, weighing the pros and cons.
Slay dire wolf and pack harassing north-western hunting grounds. Great pay, high risk. Their speed would keep him from fleeing easily, and their sense of smell would make getting the drop on them… difficult. Hugh shot Greta something of a gimlet eye, to which she shrugged. Fair enough, they weren’t boars at least.
Kill or capture a band of bandits to the south of Weathersby. Estimated numbers are three dozen strong. Pay was fair, as they’d been harassing caravans, but it wasn’t anything notable. Probably posted by a merchant who didn’t have much coin to spare but wanted the threat eliminated before they made the journey. There was unfortunately little information about what sort of races the vagabonds had among them, but the fact that their attacks were said to occur only in broad daylight said plenty to Hugh. Taking advantage of his ancestral darkvision would serve him well here, and unless any of them turned out to have surprising training, outrunning them should be no issue. Those numbers though...
He filed that one away as a “maybe”.
The last one was for a wizard that was suspected to be dabbling in some of the less scrupulous aspects of necromancy. Single target, well known location and also a public figure. Normally, that would be an issue, but the bounty also called for an investigation. If proof of innocence could be found, then full pay would still be provided, but if none was to be had, then the target was to be eliminated. Hugh mulled it over. If the accusations were true, he’d also be dealing with undead most likely, not a great match-up. To say nothing of the nigh-suicidal task of infiltrating the sanctum of a properly dug-in wizard. [Alarm] spells would likely quickly become the least of his worries. Very high pay though....
Sighing, Hugh passed the wizard and dire wolf requests back. “I’ll handle the bandits then,” he grunted mulishly, shooting Greta a peeved look. “What’s with these requests? Surely, there’s something less… trying?”
“Couldn’t say, dearie. All the easy ones have been getting snapped up as of late. And before you ask, I’ve no clue why. Could merely be coincidence, but what I’ve left beyond these is either more risk than you like or too low paying to be worth your time,” Greta shrugged unapologetically, as she walked over, his meal in hand.
Hugh sighed, lifting the contract off the table and scooting his meal closer. “Nothing for it then. I’ll make it work.”
The clank of armor behind sounded all too late in the noisy tavern for Hugh to react, as the parchment was pulled firmly from his hand.
Who in the fuck darest-?!!
“Oh hoh!” a far too loud voice all but screamed in his ear, as Hugh whirled around to get a face-full of shining breastplate. He resisted the abrupt urge to flick a dart into the interloper’s eye.
Skin tanned by long days outside, impeccably brushed maple-brown hair, shining green eyes, and a massive grin, the knight or sellsword of some manner proudly settled a fist on his hip above his sheathed longsword, as his other hand held the contract up to his face. Once more, his voice boomed loudly enough that Hugh couldn’t help but flinch at the looks that was getting them both even above the normal ruckus of the rowdy establishment. “Slaying no-gooders in the service of our precious citizens! Is there a more righteous cause?” the knight declared almost rhetorically, before shooting a wink at one of the barmaids. “Save for… dragons perhaps?”
Yeah, this guy was clearly far too confident… and loud. Also, what the hell was that comparison?! Bandits vs dragons?! Could the context be any more different?!
Teeth grit, Hugh’s expression darkened, as he stood, still only able to come up to shoulder-height of the towering wall of metal and pomp that was the knight. Locking his flat brown eyes with sparkling green, Hugh quite deliberately reached over and snatched the parchment from only somewhat resistant fingers. “No.”
“Hugh-,” he could hear Greta starting to wind up for another one of her damned guilt-tripping rants and shot her a silencing glare, as he firmly sat back down and mostly turned away from the knight, still keeping the interloper within his peripheral vision.
“Not just no,” Hugh ground out, “but gods no. You could not pay me to work with someone like that. More to the point, I’d rather not split the reward.”
“Oh hoh?” the knight spoke up before Greta could say something else pointless. Graciously, the knight appeared to have toned down his volume… slightly, as he leered in a way that was probably meant to seem mocking in a friendly manner. Ridiculous. “You seem mighty confident for someone going after three dozen bandits alone.”
Mildly less irritated now that he had food to distract him, Hugh snorted around a mouthful of soup, taking his sweet time before swallowing. “As shocking as it may sound, between the two of us, I actually know what in the hells I’m doing. I’ve been at this kind of work most of my life.” He took a sip from his mug and shrugged. “Three dozen bandits isn’t a problem if you do it my way. To be honest, the only overconfident one here is you.” Hugh shot a raised brow in the knight’s direction, as he swallowed another bite of soup and took a pull from his mug. “What’s a sellsword with your kind of… energy doing alone?” Hugh made a show of looking over the room and snorted. “I certainly didn’t notice anyone approaching when you entered, nor do there appear to be any individuals with the dispositions of embarrassment that I’d expect from those with the misfortune to find themselves in your presence.”
To be honest, Hugh was exaggerating somewhat. Under different circumstances, he might have been willing to put up with such an absurdity in the form of a person, but this man had interrupted his meal and imposed upon his time and personal affairs. No, Hugh couldn’t be bothered with politeness for someone without even the slightest grasp of basic social courtesies. Indeed, he found to some satisfaction that the sellsword now sported a somewhat less bright grin, the rather spiteful words having struck home.
And yes, he was graciously ignoring the affront to his pride that was this absolute unit of an individual somehow sneaking up on him. How embarrassing.
Now then, if only this jester would leave.
After a moment, to Hugh’s chagrin, the knight shrugged and stepped over to seat himself heavily at the stool to his right. “Hah~! You’re pretty cutting with those words of yours. You a Bard?”
Hugh raised a brow, unsure where this was meant to be going, and shook his head lightly in denial, gesturing sarcastically, “Do I look the part? Oh dear, I must have left my lute at the circus.” He snapped his fingers with a roll of his eyes. “Drat.” He shrugged his shoulders. “More seriously, I make a habit of not attracting attention to myself in my line of work. Quite frankly, there’s no need to experiment. It’s obvious to anyone with half a brain that our methodologies are incompatible.” He pointed his spoon at the knight. “You should look elsewhere for your fortunes.”
The knight’s expression twisted for a moment, before he sighed, turning to lean back against the counter and rest his elbows atop it. “Man, they never said it would be this hard to get a rogue. Usually, as long as there’s money in it, they’re on board.” He thoughtfully scratched lightly at a bit of stubble on his chin.
Hugh shot him a disbelieving look. “‘They’ who?” At the knight’s opening mouth, he waved him off. “You know what? No, I don’t need to know.” He shrugged. “Look, I’m not really a rogue, not in the sense of what so-called ‘adventurers’ widely acknowledge as required skills to be one.”
“That’s not the sense I got from you,” the sellsword replied with a sly grin. “You might do a good job of passing yourself off normally, but…” His hand pointed to the faded black tunic wrapping Hugh’s torso. “They don’t just make those for everyone. There’s a process or somethin’, and they’re not exactly mainstream fashion.” He leaned in closer with a rather painfully conspiratorial whisper. “I’ve come across a couple of your buddies a time or two. Definitely gave me some trouble… and scars. And you know, I’ve got some talent myself, ‘nough to notice you thinking about stickin’ me for a moment there.”
A trap?! Hugh had yet to run into any bounty hunters out for his head in particular, but he’d known they had to be coming. Strange that they’d not be more direct, but then again, that’s what they’d know he’d expect after all...
Hugh’s expression closed off, eyes flickering around the establishment, suddenly far more consciously aware of the various escape routes his subconscious had logged. Stairs, windows, doors. Over the counter? His peripheral vision now quite prioritized the knight’s still undrawn sword. Outwardly, he muttered just loud enough to be heard over the din of noise, “I’m not with them anymore. I got out of that line of work years ago.”
The knight grinned. “But you’ve still got the skills regardless.” He spread his hands guilelessly. “I don’t know much ‘bout them “martial artist” types, but your compatriots at least got me interested in them specifically. Big ol’ clan of rogues if I ever did see one!”
Hugh squeezed his eyes shut and exhaled slowly, meditatively, as he took another sip of his grape juice, trying to steady his adrenaline-pounding heart. So, this… person… wasn’t here for his head… probably. He’d keep a wary eye out regardless. “What…. exactly is the point of all this?”
The knight thrust his broad chest forward proudly, straightening his spine and laying a hand on his chest, declaring, “I, Kite Simmons, have a Dream!”
“Denied,” Hugh replied flatly, feeling some of the tension woosh out of himself, despite his best efforts. This idiot had some dangerous charisma.
“Oi,” chuckled the now named Kite, “Don’t be so quick about it.” He puffed up again, clearly not so quick to lose the wind from his sails, and he thrust out an upturned open hand. “I, Kite Simmons, am putting together a party of Heroic Adventurers, that we might seek fame and glory, carving our names into history!”
“Cute,” Hugh mumbled sarcastically through a mouthful of soup, swallowing. “Still ‘no’, though.” After a moment, he blinked and reminded himself of his cheese-stuffed baked bread. Best eat that now; it would surely cool faster than the soup.
Putting the nattering of the knight out of his mind for now, Hugh allowed his unwanted compatriot’s words to wash over him without comprehension, as he savored the buttery crunch of the finest loaf in town, licking his lips every now and again to snag every last crumb and any smidgeon of loose cheese that might have evaded its rightful home.
“-not even listening to me, are you?” Kite was saying at a miraculously normal volume, as Hugh finally came down from his food high.
Arching a brow at him, Hugh took a long pull from his mug and smacked his lips in satisfaction. “Not really.” He shrugged and then frowned. “What part of ‘no’ do you not understand? What portion of this basic concept of civilised interaction is particularly broad enough to not penetrate your iron-clad skull?”
“Hah…” Kite exhaled with slumped shoulders. “Why is it always like this?”
Always? Never mind, that’s obvious. You come on way too strong!
Outwardly, Hugh grimaced, annoyed at the squeeze his stomach was making, that absurd little annoyance Millie called his ‘conscience’. Ignoring it, he sniffed, “Honestly, if no one will let you join their party, then you should change your approach. Obviously, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results in the definition of insanity.”
“Heh,” Kite straightened up, thumbing his nose proudly, “that’s why I’m putting together my own party of heroes!”
Hugh groaned and rolled his eyes. “There’s that word again: ‘heroes’. Somehow, I get the idea you’re aiming too high right now.” Clucking his tongue, he scoffed. “You’ll get much farther in life if you only take up tasks you’re certain to complete.”
KIte blinked. “Well, if heroes run away with everyone else, then who’s going to stay and fight?”
Hugh ground his jaw. “And that’s why they have such poor life expectancy, but that’s quite beside the point of this conversation. You want to come on this bounty hunt, and I’m saying no... emphatically. And that’s my final word on the matter.”
“What if I did things your way?”
“What.” It was less a question than it was an expression of shock, as Hugh’s brows shot up into his hairline. Obviously, this knucklehead was trying to play him, but the fact that he was even willing to attempt such underhanded tactics was… ironically a good sign to Hugh. Maybe there was some hope for this guy.
Kite squirmed in a way that looked quite strange coming from a six and a half foot behemoth of a man. “We can do things your way, and I’ll prove you wrong.” He frimed up his expression and clenched a fist. “Heroes are always making sacrifices like that, so I’ll prove you wrong.”
You’re repeating yourself, and… “basic common sense” isn’t a sacrifice… Hugh thought dryly.
“You’re an ametuer,” Hugh muttered in stark realization. This wasn’t just some idiot who’d managed to survive on grit, audacity and god-given luck; this was a complete novice. “Despite appearances, despite your gear, you’ve never ‘quested’ with anyone at all, have you? Have you so much as killed a goblin?” As a morbidly curious afterthought, he added, “How old are you?”
Kite grinned awkwardly, “Ah, 17 today! Finally got my old man’s blessing and everything!” He rapped his knuckles against the obviously brand new suit of plate armor.
THIS WALL OF MUSCLE WAS 17?!!
“Now that I’ve learned all I need to be a hero, the time to seek glory and fortune has arrived!” Kite clenched his fist and mustered a pose that he clearly thought looked heroic, but just appeared ridiculous while he was sitting down.
Hugh pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled through his mouth. Sure, he was hardly one to talk, considering his own upbringing, but honestly, shouldn’t what was… probably a noble’s son with some unfortunately naive views of the world be under a much stricter hand? Surely, his father must know how badly this would go for him. Also, how did someone this completely green recognize his tunic?! Did they go after his family before?
“And sure, I… haven’t fought any monsters or villains yet,” Kite said, more subdued. “But I’m willing to learn!” he declared with a strained smile. “You’re pretty experienced, right?”
“A decade and more under my belt, yes,” Hugh allowed.
“Yeah,” Kite continued, “I hope you don’t mind, but I was looking for you specifically.” Hugh frowned at that. “Heard about you on the grapevine and that you didn’t have a group yet. Figured the two of us lone adventurers could form an amazing team-up!”
Hugh sighed, “Look, kid.” Kite looked mildly put-out by that. “I work alone for a very good reason. Doing things my way requires a delicate and deceptively straightforward balance that you cannot trust to more than one person… unless they happen to share my very particular skill set.”
“I can do it,” Kite stated firmly.
Hugh looked his heavily-armored boy up and down, before dryly replying, “I quite assure you, you cannot, not in that armor.”
Hugh rolled his eyes. “Look, you were spot-on about my origins, but you seem to still be somehow overlooking the core principle of how they -I- fight.” At the boy’s blank look, he sighed. “Stealth.”
“Don’t ‘oh’ me. Can you sneak?”
“I doubt it.”
“Oi! I’ve hidden from my tutor for hours!” That would explain some things.
“There really is no comparison…” Hugh drawled blandly, idly taking another bite of his soup, as he questioned what exactly he’d done to deserve this today.
Frustration mounting, Hugh huffed and squeezed his eyes closed. “Look, given that I am the senior adventurer between us and also apparently the only one with any actual clue how things work… if I let you come.” He held up a finger to forestall interruptions, eyes shooting open into a glare.. “If I let you come, I need you to do everything I say exactly as I say it, no exceptions, because you are liable to get us both killed if you don’t.” He paused, searching the boy’s face for some comprehension of the stakes. “Do you understand?”
“Don’t worry,” Kite grinned, “I’ll prove you wrong about me.”
Hugh inhaled sharply through his nose, wary of that wording. “I’m going to regret this.”
Greta’s look of approval burned like acid.
In hindsight, Hugh decided he really should have snuck out alone.
That is to say, yeah, he definitely regretted it.
Things had started off irritating and only went downhill from there.
To start, their pace had been utterly glacial. Even after being forced to waste Ki to cover Kite’s blatant tracks with [Pass Without Trace], he had still had to hammer the bare-bones basics of not loudly tearing through the fucking underbrush into the brat’s head. It had still taken them a full day to even find the bandits’ camp at all, since Kite managed to get himself lost every single time Hugh would head off to scout. The bandits had unfortunately managed to set themselves up into a rather defensible glade set into the side of a mountain, which left them with three of the four sides of the camp well shielded by a natural rock barrier.
There had been a small mercy in that, upon finding the camp, it had turned out the bandits’ numbers were only in the two dozen, instead of three.
All in all, it was looking like a difficult battle ahead of them, not that Hugh had any intention of fighting fair, much to Kite’s chagrin. The plan was simple: wait till nightfall and then quietly slit all their necks one at a time. The bulk of the work would fall to Hugh, but as the senior between them, that should only be natural. He didn’t expect to manage all of them before an alarm could be sounded, but he did think he could chop their numbers down to a comfortable six to ten before things got hairy. After that, Kite could come sweeping in to help mop up the rest. Short, sweet and to the point. What could go wrong?
Everything, as it so happened.
The bandits had posted guards, obviously. However, they also apparently had several of their number hunting or scouting out new targets for raiding at any given time. For Hugh, this would be no problem. In fact, their numbers being split might even have made it easier in the long run, allowing him to pick off the outliers before dealing with the main hive of villainy.
If only he didn’t have a massive shining beacon with him, glittering from the noonday sunlight.
A returning scout spotted them. Luckily, Hugh was on high alert already and spotted him at the same time. Quick as a whip, he had his shortbow drawn and an arrow nocked. Between one breath and the next, he could have gouged out the criminal’s throat… were it not for Kite spotting his action and whirling about with a thunderous warcry.
After that, things had quickly devolved.
The initial bandit was slain with trivial ease, but the remaining nearby camp was riled and came charging at them head-long. Hugh’s calls for a retreat were summarily ignored, as Kite charged in shouting some nonsense about “proving himself” and “justice”.
It didn’t really matter, all told, as Hugh wasn’t in a position to stay nearby to cover his glorified civilian of a partner. His arrows had quickly put the fear of god into the bandits in the initial moments of the conflict, and so, naturally, they attempted to swarm and corral him in particular. It didn’t work, but due to their sheer numbers, they got far too close to success for his liking time and again, persistently forcing him to give ground and flee further from the camp. He managed to pick off their archers first. After that, it was all a matter of going dark and carefully picking them off one at a time in a running battle that took the better part of 10 minutes, a small eternity for a fight.
Returning to the camp, he made short work of the remaining grumbling and alternatively celebrating (far too soon) bandits with the maximum distance advantage his bow could provide, but the damage was well and truly done. Kite was bleeding out, having been beaten and tortured to some degree even in the small time-frame.
“T-take i-it,” Kite choked out, a shaking hand holding out a bloodied letter with a broken wax seal.
As he took the letter with pinched fingers, Hugh grimaced at the waste of human resources, as the boy bled out in front of him, his gut torn open. A young man in the prime of his life, who could have done just about anything else with that life and gone on to know relative peace and happiness. Instead…
“T-the lech-letcher; icks what I w-wanted heroes for, a c-call to ad-”
The abrupt silence dragged on. Pulse checked. Yep, he was dead. What an utter waste. In real life, you didn’t get any last words.
Palming the letter in one hand, Hugh couldn’t help but scoff as he perused the contents. What utter nonsense. A job without listed pay? A threat the sender couldn’t even confirm to be real? And worse, neither the letter itself, nor the envelope, was addressed to anyone. It was like the sender had literally hurled it into the wind and hoped they would be lucky enough to receive aid… for a possibly imaginary threat. Certainly, as a matter of principle, Hugh could only applaud their paranoia, but open ended contracts like this with no guarantees… Geez. Only an idealist or thrill seeker would accept such a call on a whim.
Looking down at the fresh corpse, he clucked his tongue.
Yet another partner... dead…
“Honestly,” he sighed, surprised to feel a slight shudder in his chest, whatever that was about, “why do I even try?” He was only twenty-six, for Hades’s sake, so why in the hell did he feel so much older?
If there was anything that Hugh felt bad about that day it was that a young boy’s last sight was his own look of complete disdain.
Greta was going to be disappointed.
“He deserved better, y’know?”
Hugh ignored the illusion, as he completed his nightly meditations. The moonlight barely managed to illuminate an inn room draped in elongated shadows, the manifestation of [Pass Without Trace] crawling and writhing across every surface, as Hugh once more exercised the ever so steadily strengthening muscle that was his pool of Ki.
“If you were so worried, you could have waited longer, put together a proper adventuring party. Nobody needed to die.”
Hugh didn’t answer the figment of his imagination anymore. It was pointless. He’d long-since proven it could tell him nothing he did not already know. Besides, the fool would have rushed ahead himself if he had appeared to be stalling.
“Liar liar, pants on fire~! Why must we do this every time, Hughy~!
[Pass Without Trace] was in many ways his ideal state of mind. It was not so much concealment as it was blending and extending what was already there. It didn’t just manipulate the world, but instead brought the world and the subject together in harmony. In many ways, it was the closest magic could come to making you “one with the shadows”. Indeed, as shadows left no mark of their passing, so neither would you. That state of serene harmony was something no fool like Kite Simmons could ever understand. It was inevitable that such individuals that attempted to bend the world to their whims instead of working alongside it would always choke on their pride.
Honestly, he’d known from the start the futility of opposing a fool’s path. Why then had he bothered to stand in his way? Perhaps because it was momentarily inconvenient for him personally to do otherwise? Ultimately, Kite’s destiny was to be forgotten, like all those before him and all those to come. It was an ignoble end to be sure, but that was hardly Hugh’s fault. Their alliance was temporary from the start; if not with him, then the naive sellsword would have perished elsewhere in the same manner. Hugh smiled, satisfied with that conclusion.
“So you can see the future now can you? Why didn’t you stop me from dy-”
Hugh removed his fist from the now damaged floorboard, the brief spike of pain bringing that unproductive and artificial line of thought to a definitive end. There was a point at which he drew a line, and there it was. That was the line. Standing, he brought the ministrations of his Ki to a halt, observing as moonlight now illuminated freely his room.
His ancestral darkvision was an odd beast, he idly noted, striding towards the bed. He had his theories about how it worked. The nature of elves -and thus- the nature of Fey was not unfamiliar to him. Such creatures tended to possess an innate connection to the natural world in his experience, so while he had no special ability to sense Ki outside his own body, he could only theorize that his vision worked by observing the ever-present ambient Ki of the world, that which even the absence of light could not do away with. That said, even at its weakest, black, white and scales of definitive grey were always visible.
The bone-white letter stood out starkly atop the small writing desk, an ugly grey blotch staining the bottom-left corner of it.
Sighing heavily, he sat, the bed squeaking beneath him, glaring without any real heat at the letter. All of a sudden, he felt way too tired. Somehow, he couldn’t manage to get himself to burn the damned thing and be done with it.
“Y’know,” that damned voice came from somewhere behind him again, “here you are trying to honor my last wish, and you can’t even be bothered with a child you knowingly led to his death.”
“Shut up, Millie.”
Thankfully the voice was absent for the rest of the night, even in his dreams.
Today’s the day.
The Letter (and it deserved the capitals) lay innocuously atop the bedside writing desk, the red-brown stain that wrinkled the bottom-left corner standing out starkly in the daylight that poured into the simple accommodations. As ever, Hugh was cursed by his training and sheer ingrained habit to be a morning person, but that wasn’t the source of his ire this morning.
For the audacity of daring to herald this particular day, Hugh for once favored the sunrise with a withering glare out his window, clenching his jaw at the inescapable autumn chill, as he begrudgingly shed his tunic and grimaced at the cold that his muscles had yet to warm up enough of a defense against… as it had been these last four days in the rather appallingly sleepy town of Darenby.
Not appalling in that he particularly wished a calamity upon the people for no good reason, but this was looking more and more like a complete waste of his time.
He scratched at the week-old stubble across his jawline and frowned deeper. Long enough he could rather casually grasp it with a pinch. That was going to need taking care of if he didn’t want to look like a complete vagabond later. In fact… He gave himself a once over, a good sniff, ran his fingers through his shaggy, mud-brown hair, and then clucked his tongue. A bath too was clearly on the agenda.
So, in order: see about a drink, then stretches, aerobics, then… Wasn’t there supposed to be that beef special here? Ask about that. What else could he do before bathing? He’d really rather not go to the effort and then waste it getting sweaty again right after.
Actually, on second thought, stretches, aerobics, then the drink. Putting it off for last would give him a little extra motivation. Normally, he’d not chance things with hydration, but today was the day. He’d be going lighter on the training so as to not exhaust himself ahead of time, just in-case this bogus threat turned out to have some legitimacy and required immediate addressing. It’d be fine.
That settled, he hiked his pack up on one shoulder, a sweat-towel over the other and stepped into the hallway, passing but a single other earlybird, as he headed down into the main dining area. A sigh of relief left him, as the billowing warmth of the fireplace banished the lingering chill from his bones.
The Yawning Dog was a cozy little establishment and, dare he say it, even somewhat traditional if their tea flavors were anything to go by. Family owned and run, the humans here definitely knew their stuff and ran a tidy, quiet ship. Hugh had not the foggiest clue where they managed to get all the wide variety of tea flavors they had shipped from, but he certainly wasn’t complaining, nor particularly inclined to ask questions.
All he needed was his morning cup of sencha and warm fire. All the taste of going home without the unfortunate state of being there.
Place could stand to rely a little less on potatoes and pork in nearabouts every dish, but Hugh would take that trade for the tea. The lodgings weren’t bad either, comfortable and sufficient without any unnecessary pomp or frills. He could respect that.
Regarding Mrs. Brown, who apparently had the run of the place this morning, with a casual wave, Hugh dallied not, lest he procrastinate on leaving the comforting warmth of the hearth. Rolling his neck, he stepped into the outdoors shirtless, as was his habit every free day of training he could grasp. Overhead, there swayed lightly in the autumn wind a charming little hand-painted sign of a brown and white dog widely yawning.
Property rights could be tricky things, so out of a desire to step on as few toes as possible, Hugh made his way out of town at a light jog. His run was nothing serious of course; he hadn’t stretched yet. Speaking of which...
Arriving in his, as of late, new favorite glade, Hugh set his pack against the trunk of a tree and laid himself down in the center of the glade, grimacing at the chilly morning dew on the grass trickling into his bare back. With a huff, he began.
200 squats, 200 sit-ups, 200 crunches, 200 pull-ups with a tree, 200 lunges with each leg, 200 jumping jacks, 200 push-ups… To be frank, it took a while, the better part of an hour in fact, as he went to great lengths to ensure every muscle got its due.
And this was holding back. His physical strength had never been the best, but that was more down to how his body was naturally inclined to grow. So, he’d abandoned that path and focused on shoring up his stamina and raw skill. With enough of the latter, one need not overwhelming strength, merely the ability to identify weaknesses and punish them.
Honestly, Hugh didn’t know what he was going to do with the extra time today. He’d already explored everything he could these past four days since he arrived, gathering what sparse information could be had in this sleepy town. He’d avoided the Infamous Pear for the most part; it was too potentially central to the issues at hand. Instead, he’d spread his web elsewhere.
The One-Eyed stag was mostly patronized by foreigners for gambling and so had little in the way of local news to offer. Their info on the Sheriff had only yielded blatantly biased opinions, likely in whole because he was the chief lawmaker hearabouts. Hugh couldn’t say how much that might have reason to put him at odds with the patrons, but the information was there and opinionated as all get out.
And the Dancing Mare, even from a distance, was far too trying for his patience to brave for a second, so he’d not bothered stepping foot in there.
Oddly enough -perhaps coincidentally or perhaps not, it was the Yawning Dog where he managed to snag a hint of something worth investigating last night. Perhaps it was the variety of their herbal stock that had led them to being more in touch with such things, but there had been a strange lack of contact from outlying farmlands as of late. It could be a lead or completely unrelated to the Sheriff’s issue, but Hugh would bring the matter to attention regardless.
As he mulled over these things, his body practically moved on autopilot, slinging his backpack on, draping the sweat-towel over the back of his shoulders and settling into his morning jog around the town. As today was something of a relaxation day, Hugh decided he would run laps until he felt like stopping. No need to rush. He had till late nightfall to get his affairs in order, and the sun had only minutes ago fully passed up over the horizon.
Truly, he had no clue what to do with himself today.
As he settled into the familiar motions, his muscles nicely warmed up by this point in his routine, Hugh took a deep swig from his waterskin and found his mind drifting somewhat again, taking note of a couple other oddities that had stuck out these past couple days. Well, not so much “oddities” as “peculiarities”. Or perhaps “persons of note” was more concise?
In a town of everyday peasants and the occasional uniformed guard, anything different tended to stand out starkly. On occasion, he’d caught glimpse of a young woman -or at least, she looked so from a distance- swathed in flowing whites and creams in the form of a dress. Based on the looks she got sent her way from the residents, it was plain to see that she was new to town -though he couldn’t say by how much so. Their paths really didn’t cross much.
The other one was that strange woman and her… pig. Best way he could describe her was purple, far too much of it for his liking in all honesty, but color was a subjective thing. He hardly had room to talk. She’d arrived late yesterday, and Hugh’s circuitous jogging route had let him catch the tail end of her heading into the graveyard, which seemed an odd thing to do unless you were a local. And honestly, despite not normally being a betting man, he’d be tempted to bet on her foreign status. The looks people shot her were even more telling that with the other woman.
The letter had rather heavily implied in an almost mass-produced manner that other copies should be finding their ways into the hands of other adventurers. In other words, the two he’d seen thus far were either his soon-to-be co-conspirators… or perhaps the reason the Sheriff had seen fit to call for aid to begin with. One way or another, Hugh would remain open-minded and proceed as appropriate to the situation in development.
He returned to the Yawning Dog by noon, the sun now high in the sky and a decent sweat built up across his wiry torso. Shivering in bliss as the toasty inside air hit him, Hugh continued toweling himself off, as he stepped up to the front bar. “A cup of sencha if you please, Mrs. Brown, and could I inquire about the beef special? Is that on the menu today?”
The middle-aged woman hummed thoughtfully, as she handled a small brew, beginning to portion out a small mug of golden-green tea. “That it is. The special, young man, uses spicy peppers of a local kind. They’re in season for the time being.”
“Excellent.” Grinning amiably, Hugh slung his sweat-towel over his shoulder. “If it has beef, you’d have to work hard to ruin it for me. I’ll take a single serving then.”
“Right away,” she replied with a smile.
Taking his tea with a nod and shuffling away to a seat near to the fire, Hugh allowed the tension to fully drain from his body, slouching carelessly back in his chair. A sip of the warm brew brought a smile to his face and further banished the chill from his bones he hadn’t known he’d had. If there ever was a favorite tea of his, sencha at least made the top two with its balanced flavor, neither too sweet, nor too bitter. It had a rather sweet vegetal flavor and boasted a certain ability to grant a little energizing boost, a natural one that didn’t result in an energy crash later.
Receiving his meal with a nod and word of thanks, Hugh dug in to what would soon prove to be a bracing yet fulfilling dish. It was definitely worth the wait, and perhaps more importantly, it had him feeling just a little better about what was to come. At least now he could firmly say this trip hadn’t been a complete waste of time; he’d gotten a new favorite beef dish out of it!
He spent a comfortable hour winding down.
Next on the agenda was a shave and bath. Hugh wasn’t normally one given to procrastinating, and he’d no intention of changing his ways today.
First, the clothes.
Stripping down, he retrieved from his pack an everyday soapball, the unscented sort that any civilian could get their hands on cheaply. As efficiently and thoroughly as he could manage, Hugh then set about dipping his effects in a river and scrubbing them down, before slinging them over a tree branch to air dry in the autumn wind.
He took this opportunity to run through some of his martial arts techniques and forms, in part to maintain the skills naturally… but mostly to warm up his muscles as a buffer against what was next… that being a rather bracing bath in the chilled river waters. Needless to say, he didn’t waste any time there.
And finally, the shave.
Taking a small knife from his bag, one he kept sharpened for this purpose alone, Hugh leaned down towards his rippling reflection in the river and set about it. The end result was a bit patchy -as sliding his hands across his face and neck could attest to, but the end result wouldn’t look odd unless one were inclined to be particularly scrutinizing. Not a clean shave but close enough for Hugh’s purposes.
He spent the next hour and change meditating upon and exercising his Ki while he waited for his clothes to dry. After that, he unfortunately found himself definitively back at square one. With all other tasks of import completed and the sun past the mid-point of the sky, it was about time he got the lay of the land.
The Infamous Pear
Over the course of the past 4 days, Hugh had gone to some lengths to present himself as merely another traveler. As such, he’d made sure to visit the Infamous Pear at least once a day for a simple meal in preparation for today. The intention was to see that his presence would go unremarked, and he could spy on the supposed meeting place at his leisure. More to the point, if things started looking overmuch like a trap or ultimate waste of his time, he could simply leave and be on his way out of town, no one the wiser.
Hugh gratefully sighed, as the warmth of the hearth soaked into his wind-chilled -if dry- clothes. Accepting a cider from the far too energetic bartender and ignoring any dialogue not directly tied to the acquisition of the former, he plopped himself at the seat nearest to the empty Bard stage and, thus, the fireplace set into the back of it. His table, itself, provided an overall good view of the first floor of the inn. With a full view of the entire establishment and nearly no tables at all behind him, he was well positioned to be ready for anything.
Granted, there were certainly better spots if he didn’t want anyone coming up behind him, but those spots were a bit too far from both the bar to his left and the highly conspicuously reserved table of significant size to his right. He wanted to be able to eavesdrop easily on both.
Sipping his cider, he grimaced. Normally, he wasn’t one to be bothered by pulp, but this… swill was more chunky apple juice than anything else. Sighing, he set about the task of downing it anyway. It was a shame that the tea around here didn’t have a prayer of matching the Yawning Dog’s, but “waste not, want not” and all that rubbish. Plopping his bag atop the table and sliding his staff into his lap and out of immediate sight beneath the table, Hugh settled in for a long wait. Thankfully, he had experience with those.
Approximately three hours later, things suddenly started happening quite quickly.
A lavender-skinned tiefling, broad of shoulder and with a thick, well-trimmed beard, stepped in and strode straight to the bartender, asking quite directly about the “Arbalest party” as instructed in the letter. The bartender, quite obviously taking great joy in treating this whole matter with not a single whit of seriousness then proceeded to assault the poor foreigner with a less than subtle spiel that Hugh was rather tickled pink to have avoided. The tiefling, at least, seemed to be mildly amused by the exchange, as he headed straight to the reserved table, as predicted.
Although… He was easily tall enough to have a full head on Hugh. He was an obvious warrior of the more direct martial sort. And he had a longsword. Honestly that last one was much lesser in the grand scheme of things, but that was an unfortunate trio of similarities that he didn’t need slapping him in the face just yet. At least this guy looked far more… reserved and, far more importantly, experienced -if the prominent scar was anything to go by. Certainly though, he seemed confident -or at least invested- enough in his own appearance going by the jacket worn notably over his armor. Hugh would withhold judgement for now, but honestly, the fewer “fighters” he had to put up with, the better.
Soon after, came a much shorter blonde woman -if using the bartender’s own height as a scale was anything to go by, who was also unfortunately decked out in rather heavy looking armor. If the shield strapped to her back and sturdy mace were any indication, she unfortunately was also very much invested in about the furthest approach from stealth. On the upside, she compensated by clearly being some manner of holy woman. Hugh wasn’t really an expert, but the large amulet around her neck bespoke of something that was tickling his memory. Perhaps he’d studied it in passing, when he was… yeah, that was when.
Unfortunately, there was one last counterbalance to the counterbalance. She appeared to have a, dare he say it, noble bearing with high cheekbones and notably well cared for skin and hair. Certainly, he commiserated with the look of barely restrained disdain on her face, as she received her own version of the bartender’s rambles with far more patience than Hugh felt he was personally inclined to, but she also looked like she was half-way personally offended to be here.
Actually, scratch that, he commiserated with that too. What was he going on about again? Regardless, at the least, she seemed fairly professional, and Hugh could work with that, if nothing else. Besides which, if she was really a cleric of some note, then maybe... He’d take the opportunity if it was presented. For now, it would be best to discern if their personalities were compatible enough to ingratiate himself with her. Thoughts for another day.
Unfortunately, the string of apparent consummate professionals couldn’t last forever.
Mere moments later, the door of the inn slammed open, and the strangest (because somehow a regular color for her kind was strange, he was suddenly realizing)… and loudest tiefling he had ever seen flounced in like she owned the place. Hugh cringed in second-hand embarrassment, as she loudly declared her greetings and purpose to all and sundry. Secondly…
Were those pants transparent?! Nevermind the modesty of them, her clothing in its entirety was wholly inappropriate for autumn -going on winter- weather. How in the nine hells was she not shivering in her nonexistent boots? There’s no way something he could see through was any better at combating the chill than going bare-ass naked. Speaking of, was her top made of the same materia-
Nope, new topic, new thoughts, new places. Distraction? What distraction? Oh hey, there’s the newest member of this band of misfits coming right now!
That was… an absolute unit of a woman.
Sure, the purple tiefling was tall, but this lady… Hugh was sitting down, but even at a distance, he had the irritable urge to tilt his head upward, as the newcomer was forced to duck her head to even get inside and still managed to ram her helmet against the top of the doorframe, which creaked in protest.
If the bar had been loud in the face of the pale tiefling, then it was damn near dead silent in the face of this utter behemoth of a warrior. Floorboards audibly pleaded for their lives in the face of her enormous bulk and weight, as she ambled over and exchanged pleasantries with the bartender. As she strode over to the reserved table and sat down, removing her helmet, Hugh feared for the integrity of her chair.
Hugely tall? Check. Brunette. Double check. Armored up the wazoo and with a longsword? Triple check. Hey, there’s that anxiety again. Thank every god under the sun her equipment was obviously so well-used it was physically incapable of being properly maintained. But she’d damn well better not somehow be a fucking child, or he was going to actually lose it.
There was already a conversation being struck up amongst the “Arbalast party”, primarily driven by the energy of the disgustingly extroverted pale tiefling. Hugh was not looking forward to coming to her attention.
Regardless, he had little time to consider, as the door opened to admit, for once, a somewhat familiar face in the form of the strange woman that had arrived yesterday with her oddly docile swine.
By this point, Hugh was fairly sure that if he hadn’t sat where he was, his head would be on as much of a swivel as all the regular patrons, who looked fairly gobsmacked at the sudden burst of energy and otherness now seeping into this sleepy little tavern. In the meantime, he wondered if they were starting to get tired of swinging their gazes back and forth between the door and reserved table.
That aside, the newest stranger was, quite frankly, the “Bardiest Bard to ever Bard” if he had to put words to it, given more credence by the obvious stringed instrument case slung across her back. Draped in royal purples and blacks, she sauntered about with an easy confidence, as she conversed with the bartender and quickly went to insinuate herself amongst the growing party, her jaunty wide-brimmed and featured hat drawing the eyes almost as much as the… pig.
Hugh frowned. Certainly, “adventurers” were known to be eccentric, but that didn’t look like any old animal mascot. It didn’t act like a pig, for only the most well-trained swine wouldn’t have been poking around for scraps. It didn’t sound like a pig, for it was dead silent, not even a snuffle or snort to be heard. It didn’t smell like one either; as it passed nearby him with its cart, he caught a whiff of a strangely aromatic wood smoke, like a burning scented candle… or perfume. In fact, to some fair degree, the thing didn’t even look like a pig. The… creature was far too obviously gaunt and emaciated to be anything close to healthy, and the way the burlap so tightly concealed everything save for its tusks… Hugh was given to compare it to a mummy more than anything. It didn’t help that the wrap was tight enough that it gave lie to his sharp eyes the fact that the creature was either breathing lightly… or not at all.
Recalling the sight of the strange woman entering the graveyard yesterday during his evening jog, his eyes narrowed.
Worst case scenario, considering the near complete lack of operational security, the party the Sheriff had called forth to aid him was already compromised by enemy insurgents. Others would tell him he was too cautious. Well, most of them were dead now, where he wasn't; so in the end, who really got the last laugh?
Honestly, best case, this was all just a load of nonsense and paranoia on the client’s part.
Sighing, his attention was dragged away from that potentially budding disaster by a sixth notable arrival.
Just how many people did this guy invite?!
Honestly, he should have been expecting her, but she’d slipped his mind for a while. The young woman in pale creams and whites still wore a dress, but Hugh noted with approval the chocolate-brown leather breastplate, forearm bracers and boots. If there was ever a set of armor he would not malign, it was the leather sorts. Flexible, quiet and unobtrusive enough to sometimes be worn under other things without notice. Certainly, he didn’t need such things, and in fact, such armor would actually be a hindrance to someone so used to having a full range of flexible motion as he. But it was the thought that counted.
The young woman’s long shock of white hair was pulled up in such a way that it wouldn’t hinder her. Despite observing her from a distance before, their paths hadn’t crossed overmuch these past four days, certainly not enough to provoke conversation between them, nor for Hugh to have gotten a better grasp on her purpose. That purpose was now more than clear, as the Unicorn amulet standing out starkly against her breastplate proudly proclaimed.
Another holy woman, he noted, as she almost formally introduced herself to the now sizable group. Oddly enough, a dagger and component pouch hung from her hip. Well, with the cleric as comparison, it both was and wasn’t odd. Most spellcasters tended to avoid armor, as it often fouled up their movements when trying to cast, but most every caster that had the skill and training to use armor, went heavy and went for the best.
So, it was incredibly uncommon to see a spellcaster with light armor. No, not uncommon, outright rare was such an occurrence. And on a presumably holy magic caster as well? That had Hugh’s curiosity. More importantly than that, however, there was…
The blood drained from Hugh’s face at the Sprite.
The tiny fey was sitting proudly atop the shoulder of the self-introduced Mona. It had yet to speak thus far, but the look on its face bespoke of a certain level of petulance, to say nothing of the fact that it was a Fey. He wasn’t sure how much longer the whimsical creature would hold its tongue, nor why it would be doing so to begin with.
There were few more self-righteous Fey than Sprites. He’d know it better than most.
Once his heart had started beating again, Hugh pursed his lips and glanced out over the tavern, observing the brief lull in the chaos of strange arrivals. If there was ever a moment to jump in and prevent himself from losing a spot at both the literal and metaphorical table, it was now. As things were, there was still clearly space left to spare at the reserved table, but it would be best not to arrive last if at all possible. He was already likely to take a hit to his reputation with the group for his little waiting stunt, but by this point, the so-called group of “heroes” seemed overall competent enough to make this venture worth it.
Making a visual once-over of the hyper pale-skinned tiefling and the pack of just mostly ridiculously attractive people, he sighed in resignation and stood, leaving his mug, the cider long since polished off.
Time to face the music.
Without fanfare, he grabbed his quarterstaff, hiked his pack strap over one shoulder and strode right over. It was the work of six small steps at most to cross the distance, as he took in the looks he was getting and quite deliberately seated himself as far from the pale tiefling and the… pig as possible. Unfortunately, he was now by the holy woman and her Sprite, but that was a trade-off he’d take. As disinclined as he was to introduce himself at this stage while he still had no real proof that this whole venture was on the up and up, it would seem odd not to.
“Hugh. Just ‘Hugh’ is fine. My surname can be a mouthful,” he stated simply, setting his pack down and leaning his staff against the table. Feeling the urge to head off a couple particular questions, he added dryly, “Considering the lack of actionable intel in the letter, I had my doubts about whether this was even a legitimate contract and so decided to take a ‘wait and see’ approach. Honestly, the fact that our patron is clearly late for his own meeting isn’t exactly inspiring confidence.” He shrugged and threaded his fingers together atop the table before him. “Then again, the meeting time was also vague as hell to begin with, just like everything else about the letter.”
“Hehe, I grew up in a tavern in the desert. Chilled drinks were kind of the prerequisite!” She grinned and reached a hand, tapping a finger on the mug of beer and channeling the magical energies into a ‘Prestidigitation’, bringing about the desired effects of chilling the beer down.” Nothing beats a cool cup of cactus water or cold beer at the end of a hot day.”
Finally at the acceptance of her request, Kosara quickly brought her arms up to Kathryn’s upper arms and after a few moments of twitching of her fingers she patted the chain mail clad arm.” Ohhhhh!” A sound of marvel and wonder escaped the white tiefling’s lips as she looked up at the warrior woman’s face for a moment, before she gave the arm a squeeze with both hands and gradually checked her way down up to the forearm.”OHH!” Kosara’s impression had proved correct and she was quite pleased and impressed, very much so! She gave a few more squeezes in childish wonder, giving the others in the company a few looks as if asking - ‘Are you all seeing this?!’. “ Kathryn, you’ve got most impressive arms! Amazing...” She gave another squeeze.” Auntie had similar arms, but yours are even better! I can imagine what good massages you’d give!” She grinned happily and gave another squeeze. At the claim that Kathryn was half-giant, Kosara’s grin bloomed even more wide, seemingly ignoring the almost spit take that the other tiefling did, well she gave him a very quick eyebrow raise.” Language! Grandpa would have given you a whooping if he heard you!”
“So, in a few years you are going to be big enough to carry me on ONE of your shoulders? Nice! I’m looking forward to that time!” She nodded and finally pulled away with some reluctance.” Kat, can I call you that? Or how should I call you for short? Anyways, you know any massages? With arms like yours, so strong and firm, you will be great at it! I can teach you, we used to do it every night back home because performing dances for many hours a day did leave a lot of sore muscles. It was a great way to relax after working the day at the tavern!” She stated with dreaming voice, filled with longing and a bit of nostalgia. She was brimming with wanderlust, but it didn’t mean she forgot her home or the people there.
Kosara noted a new arrival, another woman by the looks of it. Maybe a holy woman, but she wasn’t sure.” Pleasure meeting you, Mona! I’m Kosara! Let’s be friends!” She quickly introduced herself and offered the gift of friendship. The woman was most impressive in her demeanor and had a rather unique appearance for the human race. What drew her attention away from the woman’s eyes however was the small thing sitting on her shoulder!” A SPRITE! It’s so cool, never met one before! Grandpa only spoke of them, lived too far out the desert, he used to say! Hey there, name’s Kosara! What’s yours?” She asked the sprite that was on the woman’s shoulder.
The tiefling woman then took note of Mona’s other words and blinked at her.” Are we really that are on adventures? I mean… I didn’t know! Never been with a proper adventuring party before, it was usually just Grandpa and me off on merry adventures! Or fighting in the tavern with my sisters whenever somebody gets rowdy. Well I’m sure that we can do a fine job!” She admitted happily. It was true, Kosara was never quite on an Adventure in what most considered the conventional way. It was going to be her first one that was just her stumbling over something interesting on the road, helping people in need or tagging along with Grandpa Horny Golden Horse on his evil smiting tasks.
At the sudden new voice, her head snapped to the side, narrowing her eyes at a male that had joined up to them and was now introducing himself as one ‘Hugh’ of surname too hard to meddle with! Well he was dressed like one of those fancy monks! Well.. less fancy given his clothes had faded in color some. She scrutinized his appearance from head to toe, evaluating everything. Finally she had her reached her judgment.”Hey! Pleasure meeting you, Hugh, of surname name to be avoided! I’m Kosara!” She greeted him back with cheery smile.” You dress like a monk! Why aren’t you bald? Last Monk I saw was bald wait… no he had shaved his head. Said everybody in the temple was shaving their heads! Does your temple not do it?” She honestly asked in curiosity, eyes jumping between him and the sprite on Mona’s shoulder.
Marita was saved from having to continue the conversation with the Tiefling after receiving the not unsurprising but still vexing information that no, he hadn't heard anything from the sheriff other than the letters he had sent out ahead of time. However, that came at the expense of the one saving her in this instance being the most immodestly dressed tiefling she had ever seen. The fact that two tieflings happened to show up here in the first place was what? One in a million? Even when she had attended the grand balls of nobles who had come from across the land, at most she saw 4 of them, and they had all come together from the coast.
And those clothes, most whores were better dressed even when it wasn't autumn. Kosara had done much to earn Marita's dislike before she even said anything, but her mouth only added further reasons to that list. There was nothing particularly wrong with being bubbly and gregarious, despite the stereotype that clergymen were uptight sticks in the mud, she knew many people who were very people oriented. In fact it was a very good trait to have at many different levels of the hierarchy. At the local level it was easier to connect with the flock, and at the high level, nobility and kings. The problem came from how she didn't moderate herself for the situation, and worst of all was how freely she shared information. The letter was indeed about goblins, but even from the way the barkeep talked, it probably went much deeper than that, and she presented herself as nothing but a liability if any inquisitorial duties were required of them.
Marita was taken out of her judgements by the ding of metal on wood as the largest human, let alone woman she had ever seen stepped into the tavern. By the Light, she was even taller than most Dragonborn she had seen. Aside from her stature, Marita could help but notice the state of her gear and be unimpressed by it. There was something to be said about the frugality of using what you had for all that it could provide, but there was a limit to that, and her equipment had passed that point many years ago. Stubbornly holding onto tools that barely managed to hold together from a stern look was at best asking for it to break at an inopportune time. The fact that she was still holding onto it indicated being too poor to pick up usable equipment (not a good sign for the ability of a sellsword) or some overly entrenched sentimentality. The best Marita could hope for was that Kathryn's physical attributes would compensate. Aside from that, there was nothing yet for Marita to consider.
As if not to be outdone in loud appearances, in walked a woman whose entire appearance screamed at the top of her lungs "Look at me, I'm a bard! Purple's my name, music's my game!" Unlike the previous two applicants, Victoria's Aura of Unreliability came more from her broadcasted occupation than her demeanor or equipment. Even at the best of times bards were fickle and prone to distraction, but as far as gripes went, this was almost a non-issue. No, the reasons Marita had to dislike Victoria were much pettier. Marita could see the care that was put into her makeup as a fellow "woman of the brush." Every morning she put in a lot of effort into trying to make herself look good, so seeing someone else look so much better gave a rush of envy. She knew this wasn't a valid reason to dislike her, and she seemed respectful enough (Marita silently returned the nod) so for now she'd try to suppress the feeling. She couldn't help but grimace at the appearance of Morty. Was there really a need to bring such a creature indoors? If she weren't already distracted, she might have noticed the full extent of how odd the pig was, but for the time being he was safe.
Mona. Marita didn't know what to think about her. She dressed as a holy woman, but she carried a fey on her shoulder. She wore an amulet as a holy symbol, but it wasn't dedicated to any god or set of gods. At least not any one she was familiar with, and she was fairly confident in her knowledge of what deities were out there. It was just a unicorn. Her eyes narrowed just a bit more than they were before. Her mind jumped to a few explanations: a con in holy robes, a cultist, an artist more attached to Unicorns than was healthy. Perhaps she was a foreigner from a far off country and their religious iconography was unknown to her. For now she would brush aside her doubts and just watch how Mona acted.
Finally, most surprising of all, they were joined by a man that had been in the Pear since before Marita had walked in. He was short. Very short for a man who wasn't (half)elf. Clean shaven for the most part, but looking closer, she could see bits of stubble here and there. He didn't go to the barber for his grooming, that's for sure. And his eyes were sharp, the kind that looked at people and saw the worst in them. He had been watching them this whole time from outside as it were. She didn't trust him. Those who didn't trust anybody were the first to betray others.
All in all, other than perhaps Alastor and Victoria nobody in this gaggle of misfits and rejects were trustworthy for one reason or another. Perhaps this would change given time, but Marita wasn't going to hold her breath. Now more than ever she was glad she decided to answer the Sheriff's call. If her hunch was correct, she definitely wouldn't leave a delicate matter in the hands of those at the table, even as a last resort as this were.
Marita stood from her seat and placed her hand on the table, not a slam, but with enough force to direct attention to her.
"I apologize for not introducing myself sooner, I'm Marita Bärbel. Since the Sheriff and anyone else that may be attending this party appears to be running late, the least we can do is get some business taken care of before hand so we don't end up staying up all night for nothing." Her voice came out authoritatively, but she tried to sound informal enough to not come off as commandeering.
"Everyone has given a name and alluded to being here because they got the same letter, but there's more we need to get out of the way first. Why are you here at this table, and I don't mean your life story," she said preemptively so Kosara didn't go into another tangent about her grandfather or whatever. "I mean what do you bring to this table. What skills can you contribute. If we're supposed to be working together and I'm assuming that's the case, otherwise why would we be called in like this, I want to know what exactly to expect. If this task ends up more dangerous than the word of the letter says, I don't want any dead weight, or worse a liability that endangers the rest of us needlessly. If you can't offer anything of value then you might as well leave now." That came off a lot worse than it sounded in her head. Marita cleared her voice before continuing.
"In my case I'm a cleric of Pholtus. I'm pretty good with this mace, but more importantly I'm a skilled handler of holy magic. Whether that be healing the sick and injured, bolstering allies, or ensuring that no lies be told." Unsure of how to continue or wrap up from here, she sat down and looked expectantly for someone else to follow up. If nobody did, not only would that entire display be awkward, it'd also be a bad sign to come
It was about as bad as he’d been imagining, Hugh lamented, as he received the rapid-fire questions with his poker face firmly in place. He could feel his blood pressure rising, as the Pest proceeded to make him the center of attention by way of herself. As unfortunately focused on her as he had been, he couldn’t have missed the way her expression briefly narrowed shrewdly at the sight of him. The question remaining was: did she have some awareness of his preferences already and insist on harassing him on purpose… or through ignorance?
He was inclined to think a bit of both somehow.
Well, he knew how to deal with her kind through unfortunate amounts of experience. These people were like rabid dogs; they would chip away at your defenses until they found a single crack that appeared to annoy you and, consequently, amused them… and then they’d bite down and refuse to let go. In the end, it was all down to dispelling their interest and not feeding their amusement. Unfortunately, that meant he couldn’t rise to her bait and would have to answer her questions… by white-lying through his teeth.
It would be a calculated risk. He was confident in his skills, and to any member of the party who saw through it, it would make it obvious without even having to say anything how willing he was to part with personal info at this juncture. In that case, assuming his reading of the rest of them was correct, they would respect his wishes… Not so with this “Kosara”. If she saw through him, her interest would only intensify, but at least she would be the one who seemed in the wrong in the eyes of the rest of their compatriots. So, while one result was clearly better than the other, both were still wins in his book.
Naturally, the best lies were the ones that weren’t and were, in fact, merely… misdirections.
Aloud, Hugh snorted. “Baldness is far more conspicuous.” He did not elaborate, nor rise to her bait regarding his surname. And because he was feeling a tad petty, he chose not to confirm or deny the Pest’s so-called “revelation” of his being a “Monk” -in large part because, actually, she hadn’t even asked that question directly, merely asserted the conclusion, and he would absolutely rule-lawyer her exact wording. On a technical level, she would be correct, assuming she ignorantly referred to all Ki cultivators as monks, but in practice, he was nothing of the sort, not as far as he was concerned anyway. And as a final bit of truthful misdirection. “And I did not learn what I know in any temple.” He wisely resisted the urge to scoff dismissively, considering the presence of… was it really two holy women?
Now that he had a chance to observe this group closer, something that had been bothering him in regards to the lightly armored holy woman, Mona, seemed to click into place… besides the Sprite, but that certainly contributed. Many years back, when he had been in a position to consider taking up a faith in search of Clerical magic, he had searched far and wide for one that had lax standards to get him what he wanted. Alas, a true Cleric, as he would have had to become, would need a certain level of devotion that he was incapable of.
His training in self-cultivation had long since instilled in him a disdain for the idea of relying upon outside power, instead of his own hard work, to say nothing of the fact that he simply lacked the capacity as a person to ever truly be loyal to any god. He fully acknowledged his limits, the limits of what his Way of Shadows could achieve. That’s just how it was, which meant that he would have to find a separate, fully dedicated and powerful cleric to do what he would never be able to.
Though he could hardly remember every god’s name, the implications of Unicorn-focused symbology on Mona’s amulet jogged his memory. He had researched and considered just about every god and pantheon under the sun at one time or another, and there was most certainly no “Unicorn God” that he could recall. Certainly, unicorns were technically holy creatures, but they’d never quite featured prominently as the favored animal of any particular deity. And for that matter…
Lips pursed, Hugh made certain not to glance the Sprite’s way.
To the best of his knowledge, gods did not employ or govern Fey, no matter how benign.
That in mind, what he had originally taken to be a holy woman might just be some manner of charlatan, but only time would tell. Personally, it mattered not to him, so long as she could still command holy magic, he couldn’t care less where she got the power from. And he could put his unease over the Fey to the side for the sake of the mission. If the occasional searching glances the other holy woman was shooting Mona were any indication, he suspected she wouldn’t quite agree with his more lackadaisical stance.
Speaking of which...
Cutting through any further dialogue, the blonde woman with high-born features had stood and promptly brought herself to central attention. With a sharp tone and hawk-like eyes, she clearly attempted to present herself as an authority figure among them. It was a probing bid for leadership of the newly-formed party if he’d ever seen one… and a surprisingly subtle one at that. Personally, he approved of the initiative, but was he willing to answer to her authority at the drop of a hat? Perhaps not.
Then again, showing her solidarity now could be in his favor later, and he did have to thank her for changing the subject...
The cleric, Marita, as she introduced herself, had shot him something of a gimlet eye upon his arrival earlier, which was fairly understandable. He’d been well aware that pulling his little stunt would have possible repercussions and promptly concluded them to be worth it at the time. At present, he’d yet to see any undue consequences manifest, but he’d do his best to head them off. In light of the cleric’s far more reasonable and business-related questions, now was the time to do some early damage control.
He mulled over his response, as the cleric finished her declaration and then sat back down… which made things much easier. So long as she wasn’t standing, he could safely follow in her footsteps to show solidarity… without necessarily implying subservience when he returned to sitting.
With a light grunt, Hugh shot a small nod Marita’s way and stood, rolling his jaw, as he considered his wording. On the one hand, as much as he would like to conceal his capabilities for the time being… doing so may burn bridges unnecessarily in the future and compromise the possibility of the contract’s completion. Unacceptable. Better that his new companions knew what to expect and adjust for.
Chuckling aloud, he spoke, loud enough to be heard clearly at the large table but hopefully quietly enough to evade the ears of eavesdroppers, even in the overall quiet tavern, “As you mostly seem like… ‘straight-forward’ types, I can reassure you that I cover the other end of the spectrum.” He folded his arms behind his back. “As… Kosara pointed out not entirely incorrectly, I am a Ki cultivator, but my speciality lies within techniques best used to come and go unseen, rather than approaching threats directly…” Here, he honestly couldn’t help sending a significant look towards the pale tiefling.
“If you require specifics to be satisfied…” he hummed thoughtfully. “I can silence sounds, project conventionally impenetrable darkness, and grant both myself and… allies the ability to leave no trace of their passage, to become, if you’ll excuse my phrasing, ‘one with the shadows’. However...” He raised a finger with a firm expression. “I draw my power from within instead of from what spellcasters call ‘the Weave’. As such, I have limited capacity to “cast”, as it were, except in short bursts. Extended and reckless fighting does not favor me.”
Drawing back, he shrugged and smiled amiably, “That aside, I prefer the bow and ranged combat, but I can certainly manage myself in melee well enough.” He passed his gaze over the table’s occupants, meeting gazes with each of them in passing. “On a technical level, I specialize in infiltration and espionage. I’m an experienced bounty hunter of over a decade. As such, I also bring my expertise with navigating urban information networks… both legal or otherwise. As a matter of fact…" Here he grinned wryly. “I arrived several days ago and did some preemptive investigation. I will grant you,” he rolled his jaw, “I didn’t find much in this sleepy little backwater… but I also didn’t find nothing. I will also admit that, as hard as it is for a newcomer like me to scare up significant info in so short a time, I’ve no guarantees that what I found is even relevant to the issue at hand, merely that it sounds like trouble. Time providing, I’d like to present my findings and recieve any the rest of you may have to offer.”
Chuckling lightly, Hugh smiled blandly. “Long story short? I’m about the last one you’ll need to worry about being ‘dead weight’.” He shot a final, briefly raised brow Marita’s way, as he took his seat once more and laced his fingers.
Half giant, eh? It was a curiosity, certainly. Immaterial whether or not it was accurate; it was a snippet of a story worth the telling in the right circumstances. Victoria gave consideration to digging into her belongings and writing this little tidbit of information down. She waved it off. There would be time later. Sweetly, Victoria smiled and extended an olive branch after her bout with sarcasm, "I apologize. It is an absolute pleasure to meet you, Miss Giantkin. Oh, and you seem to have acquired a fan! How lovely." The latter comment directed at the extremely forward attention being paid to Kathryn by the lady Tiefling at the table. Victoria had a very open personality (one in her profession did well with this quality) but not generally to this degree with a stranger unless she wanted something. Usually something specific. A smile remaining on her face, Victoria made it a point to surreptitiously observe this one. Still speaking to Kathryn, she concluded with an optimistic, "I'm sure we'll get along famously." She took a sip of her mulled wine and glanced around the rest of the table, trying to get an eye for others' reactions to the mounting situation.
She almost snorted that mulled wine into her sinuses when the other Tiefling (the definitely not blue one) blurted out verbal incredulity at the idea of the tall woman getting even larger. "Don't..." she started, trying to wipe the displaced droplets of spiced grape fermentation from her cheek, "...do that," she remarked with a suppressed giggle. "It almost went up my nose." Victoria recovered quickly and shook her head, then briefly looked around to see if there was anyone available to take a food order.
A newcomer, this one another distinct face from the crowd, entered and eventually made her way to the table. She introduced herself as Mona, which seemed nice enough a name. Victoria could not quite tell the significance of the pendant around her neck. She was as big a fan of unicorns as most, not that she'd ever met a unicorn personally. She did recognize the woman's Fey companion for what it was, and included it in her salutation. "Hi, Mona!" It was cheerful enough. "You look almost as lost as the rest of us, so... you must belong here." Victoria brought a single index finger up to about eye level and looked toward the Sprite with a disarming grin, wiggling said finger as a sort of tiny wave. "And who's your friend?" she asked quietly, still looking at the Sprite but speaking to Mona. Victoria was unsure whether direct engagement would be considered polite or impolite, and so hedged her bets.
A mote of surprise came with the addition of another to their group, this time from among the people already in the establishment. She had to concede the practicality of scoping out the gathering before jumping headlong into it, but just didn't see that it was worth all of that fuss. That was the point to an adventuring group, she supposed; having others fill roles or pursue angles that you would not (or could not) yourself. Hugh, as he called himself, seemed visibly less enthused than most to be here. Certainly less so than Kosara, whose bubbly nature surpassed her own without the aid of specific Gnomish mushroom cultivations.
Thoughts to the last time that she had partaken in such recreation were stifled quickly by the Cleric (for that was the profession she indicated in her present state of direct expression), in her attempt to bring the table around to business. It was a fair enough idea, Victoria decided, and gave consideration as to what she should say about herself to this gathering of strangers. The fact that Marita used the phrase "dead weight" gave Victoria a mirthful smile when it was spoken, like she was privy to an inside joke. There was a strong sense of irony to those words, as it applied to her.
Luckily, Victoria was not the first to answer. That honor went to Hugh, and boy was she glad that he spoke up first. Information is a wonderful thing. While some engaged in subterfuge to acquire it, she preferred to simply let people talk and sift out the useful words from the verbal chaff. What he said was useful. What he did not say was a trove of knowledge. Victoria maintained a polite yet inquisitive demeanor as she listened, swirling about her wine and taking the occasional small sip. One hand trailed behind her, scratching her pig's burlap-wrapped head.
"Those are some stunning qualifications," began Victoria, enunciating clearly so as to be understood by all at the table. "I cannot claim to boast such experience, but, if you all will humor me?" She looked to the rest of the people at the table, eyeing to see if anyone minded her taking a turn next. A quick nod back to Marita was followed by a supplemental comment, "Oh, I'm familiar with Pholtus. Not my cup of tea, but I do love some of his work." She nodded cheerfully, then got on with it.
"Victoria Belmont, as I said earlier, and if I wasn't too obvious about it, I am what is colloquially referred to as a Bard. Specifically, I study the Bardic College of the Grey Requiem. This can put some people off, but... people can be really intolerant sometimes." She nodded knowingly, as if contemplating an incident which might serve as example. "I am a highly socially motivated individual with a gift for speaking. I perform acts of music and oration that stirs the soul and influences the hearts of those who might listen. I inspire. I entertain. I secure the resolve of my compatriots one moment; give them peace and soothing light the next. And I have the occasional trick of magic at my disposal."
She took another sip of her wine and motioned for one of the proprietors with her goblet before continuing, "But specifically, and I say this with hesitation, mind you - the philosophy of the Grey Requiem (and my training, by extension) is influenced heavily by teachings from several deities, among them the Jasidan church, The Raven Queen, and some from Jergal, pre and post abdication." She did not delve into details of these sources, letting the names stand to see if anyone recognized them or inquired. There appeared to be no shortage of people with a bent toward religious knowledge around her. "My more lucrative ventures deal specifically with their spheres of influence, if that helps." A smile, perhaps disarming and perhaps actually arming, graced her striking yet delicate features underneath two eyes of hypnotic, crystal-blue radiance. "I'm not an epic swordfighter, nor do I channel the weight divine mandate, and I do not have the powerful bloodline of a sorcerer. I do ...what I do, and most people find it useful. I hope there's no objection to my association here. I'll try not to get in anyone's way, I promise."
A hopeful expression colored her face as she concluded with, "Sometimes a word, or a song, or a smile at the right time, can accomplish more than swords."
Alastor could almost hear his uncle scolding him in the back of his head as he watched Victoria stifle a giggle. She wiped away the wine at the corner of her mouth and he saw a charismatic little smile.
She was pretty. Really pretty. Alastor was certain Uncle Richan could feel a disturbance, he could already hear him. "Don't get involved with necromancers, boy! The witches of Lapai were buxom, were they not? Did you feel the same way when you saw them raise a horde of monsters that tore our men apart!?"
He was always very theatric. But he wasn't wrong. The Lapai Coven was a veritable wasps nest and every necromancer in there was fine. Not that Alastor knew for sure whether or not Veronica was a necromancer. It was just a feeling. Mostly from the hog. If she didn't have that Alastor probably wouldn't have suspected anything amiss. He cleared his head of these thoughts by downing the last of the mead. Thankfully he was distracted by another new arrival, another attractive ('DAMN IT!') woman with a sprite dancing around on her shoulder. She was dressed like a holy woman but she at least seemed a bit more relaxed than the grim creature sitting across from him.
”Don’t think I’ve seen this many ladies work on a single quest before.” she comments as she looks around the party. 'You're telling me lady.', Alastor thought to himself. She locked eyes with him. ”Not to forget you, of course. Just a… serendipitous encounter.”
"No of course, I quite agree. It is a pleasant change." Alastor replied, surprisingly diplomatic. They didn't have much time to think on it though because yet another person was joining them at the table. A man, thankfully. Not like that changed anything for Alastor's apparently rampant horniness today. An elf too, which was turning out to be a peculiar weakness for Alastor if Victoria and Veneth were anything to go by. Luckily, this half-elf wasn't really Alastor's type. For one he was incredibly small. Alastor had almost mistaken him for a tall dwarf for a brief second. Secondly, there was a coldness about him. Alastor had seen it in some of the veteran soldiers he served under back on the Crescent Coast. Seen too much death and not enough love. It can curdle the soul. Like spoiled milk.
Hugh made his introductions and Kosara immediately started interrogating the poor bastard. She meant well but even Alastor, who was notoriously bad at picking up on other people's feelings, could tell the small monk was getting pissed. He was saved by the cleric, Marita, establishing in a not so polite way that they should discuss their skills. Dead weight, was the words she used.
"Well you're a right firecracker, aren't ya?" Alastor chirped with a cheeky smile, but he respected it. Sometimes it took that sort of firmness to get a group into order. He wasn't sure that attitude would make her many friends though. He waited as the others went through their skill sets. Marita was a healer, which was obvious and Alastor was grateful for it. Too many things can go wrong on a mission and its easy to end up dead. Hugh was more of a rogue type, which Alastor supposed could be useful. At least his skill with a bow would be. Then it came to Veronica. A bard...among other things. Alastor only vaguely recognized one of the names. Jaisdan church...he recalled something about law and death but that barely soothed any of his misgiving.
'Maybe if you paid more attention in seminary, you git.' flared his inner monologue. 'Shut up, me.' he retorted to himself. Again, his eyes flicked to the boar, standing hauntingly silent. He saw her pet it earlier. The damn thing didn't even twitch. Then there was a lull in the conversation and Alastor figured he might as well go next.
"Well I'm sure the lot of you have already figured me out, I'm not that complex. I'm a swordsman, trained as a duelist if you care about specifics. I'm good at handling combatants one on one or in multiples. My style is more speed over power, so I make a right annoying distraction. I've also some skill with a crossbow but if I'm using that, we're in dire straits indeed." he finished with an amused chuckle.
"Greetings, fellow travelers! Perhaps, there still remains room for another in your party? Yes? For I have come here from afar to offer my aid, as requested," Naivara interrupted, having silently approached the adventurers seated at the table. As the many eyes of the party settled on her, Naivara nervously readjusted a stray acorn that she had woven into her hair and smiled. She offered a gentle bow as she rested her right hand above her heart, "The Moon shines brightly on the hour of our meeting. Given the seriousness of our task, I am glad to see our numbers, and such promise in my new companions."
In her excitement, Naivara's speech took on an overly formal air and her words rose in the gentle way of the wood elves of the Great Eastern Forests. Naivara could feel a nervous energy within her chest. People were complicated. Conversations were difficult. She was rusty. She was so rusty. Badgers were poor conversational partners she thought with a deep pang of regret. She hoped there would be no jokes. She wasn't ready. She wasn't ready for humor. She felt out of practice. The barkeeper had not helped. He had talked much too fast. He had been far too happy. He had made many confusing jokes that Naivara had struggled to follow. She did not understand what bears had to do with hats of honey and boats of oak. Truly, she did not want to know.
The kindly proprietor of the Infamous Pear had rambled at her for the better part of a half an hour. She had tried to politely thank him for the tankard of dark ale she held between her slender hands. He had offered it to her freely, loudly shouting something about distinguished travelers and late arrivals. She had tried to escape with quick mutterings of her thanks. She had tried even harder to escape when he happily noted her elven features and launched into a long, deeply flawed retelling of the ballad Peren's Lament in Unarith, an ancient elven song telling the story of the knight-errant Ser Peren Meliamne, known as Oakenheel in the common tongue. It was an an unhappy tale, a great tragedy, concerning one of the legendary servants of the god Silvanus, the Oak Father, and his doomed quest to restore the equally ancient Forest of Imen Asari. Many elves would have thought it improper and unlucky to speak such a tragic story so readily and openly to a stranger. Naivara did not share such beliefs. She saw little to fear from innocent stories and instead much to learn. She took offense only at the many errors that littered the barkeeper's recitation and the savage butchery of every elven word or name that passed between his jovial lips.
Unwilling to wait for a reply and uncomfortable standing alone at the edge of the gathered table, Naivara moved quickly to sit down. Uncertain of the full number of the party and reluctant to deprive another of a seat, she grabbed an empty chair from a neighboring table and joined the other adventurers. She sat oddly, reposing comfortably as she draped across the chair, but clearly unused to or uninterested in the proper manner of sitting on a chair.
"I am Naivara, Naivara Gray," Naivara said with a sudden thoughtful pause, uncertain of what else to say. She preferred to say little about herself in the best of times and faced with seven fresh strangers, the young wood elf found a newfound reluctance to speak any further. Focusing on her tankard of ale, Naivara fought briefly against her natural inclinations for privacy. The people of the towns and cities were fond of conversation. They did not like silence. They did not understand slowly measured words. She did not want to appear rude, she did not want to seem uninterested, and she did not want to seem unkind. She had to say more. she had to share something. Something fitting. Something useful. Something short and simple.
"I received a letter," Naivara finally exclaimed with another soft smile, having arrived at a reasonably safe revelation. She pulled the carefully folded letter out from beneath her shirt. "A letter, a letter from Gregory Arbalest, Sheriff of Avonshire, asking for my aid in resolving matters related to... a marauding tribe of goblins."
"Although I must confess, I am not quite sure how the Sheriff's letter reached me," Naivara mused, gently waving the letter in her hand. "I am druid of the deep forest. A hermit? Yes! A hermit, as you people say. A wonderful word, it brings me much joy. Peace is a great gift when speaking to the forest. I must beg your pardon, for I have no other titles. I am a watcher of the wilderness."
Naivara took a deep breath, almost overwhelmed by the number of her own words,"Inked words on parchment. Letters. Letters generally do not travel very far beyond the roads. I do not receive many letters However, when words do reach me, by ink or raven, I do my best to help, and so here I am."
Satisfied with the extent of her conversational accomplishments, Naivara returned her chief attentions to her ale, sipping politely at the bitter liquid as she studied the other adventurers. Her features shifted with sudden dismay as she remembered the twilight that had welcomed her to the town, the number of her new companions, and the barkeeper's offhand comments about her lateness.
"Forgive me for the late hour of my arrival," she began apologetically, once more slipping into a formal rendition of the common tongue. "The unmarked paths are ever uncertain in this changing season."
Marita was glad that she didn't have to wait long for someone else to respond to her proposal, even if it was Hugh, who with each new word came off as more and more of a little prick. She understood his immediate dislike of Kosara, especially given how she pounced at his throat first chance she got, but the condescension and smarmy self-satisfaction that dripped from his every word was a bit much even for her, which really said something coming from one who came from the church of the God of Inflexibility. Grating tone aside, he did provide a lot of useful information. In this troupe of social rejects and sore thumbs, someone with abilities in the realm of subterfuge could be a great asset. Arriving early and doing some investigation showed initiative on his part, and if he found something pertinent to this job having more information than the scraps they were given would make the situation much less irritating. When Hugh looked over at Marita he'd see her looking back with a vaguely irritated, but not dissatisfied expression.
As Victoria began to speak, Marita found herself leaning in to listen without even intending to do so. She certainly had a hypnotic voice that made you want to listen, as much as the cleric was loathe to admit it. There was no surprise when Victoria listed off her artistically inclined talents, but it was still good to confirm them. But when she mentioned the names of her divine inspirations, Marita's eyes instantly flashed with recognition before narrowing, looking at Morty and then back to Victoria. However, not a word slipped past Marita's lips. Of course she would recognize Wee Jas if nobody else considering she shared the same panthenon with Pholtus.
Marita's gut instinct was to call out Victoria for being a dirty necromancer, but she fought that back, if for no other immediate reason than risking accidentally causing an angry mob to form. It might have come as a surprise to those ignorant of the more intricate details of the gods and their doctrines, but despite being a Lawful Good Sun god, Pholtus didn't actually have dogma explicitly condemning the undead. Sure in practice 99% of the time the Undead would be purged due to being a menace to society or used for evil means, but this might have been the 1% exception she never expected to have to deal with. In fact, Pholtus and Wee Jas were probably closer in alignment than him and Pelor. It was also worth noting that she decided to explicitly namedrop 3 lawful neutral Death gods with similar stances on undead and their use. Either she just wanted to flex her religious studies, or she was being sincere. The fact that Victoria volunteered this information freely (even if a bit veiled for obvious reasons) did much to have the cleric temper her reaction from "Openly Antagonistic" to "Heightened Wariness." If nobody else brought up the resident bard's fondness for the unliving, neither would she even if she didn't like it.
It all made sense now. That wrapped up pig, her fondness for purple, Gray Requiem. In retrospect it was all quite obvious. Actually, now that the name Wee Jas was in her head, Marita took a double take at Victoria's features. It was almost like the depictions of the Ruby Sorceress leapt of the page and decided to rock a tricorn. This realization twisted her gut in a knot. The appearance of this woman here was an omen. Now more than ever she was convinced that she needed to be here on this mission.
And yet, in the midst of all these complicated feelings, Marita felt a sense of relief. Perhaps it was the pettiest feeling she had had in months, but knowing that Victoria was a necromancer gave her a legitimate reason to dislike the half elf beyond shallow envy, and she didn't have to fight that feeling anymore. There was still a hint of shame because it was a rationalization, but there was only so many thoughts she could juggle at one time and the ramifications for trying to justify a minor sin was low on the priority list.
The cleric's thoughts were cut short by the appearance of Naivara, who of her own accord let everyone know she was a druid. She seemed extraordinarily awkward, but the hermit's smile and tone evoked an odd sense of nostalgia in Marita, although she could not place why exactly. She did not like it, but that malaise did not extend to the girl herself.
"No need to be too concerned. The Sheriff has yet to arrive himself, so we were getting to know each other better and what we are capable off. To keep it short, I have Clerical magic, Hugh over there is an expert in stealth, Victoria the silver tongue and Alastor the blade. Ah, my name is Marita Bärbel." Her tone and cadence were about as nice and approachable as the cleric was capable of. She couldn't fault the druid for interrupting the conversation, so she tried to catch her up to speed as quickly as possible, while allowing the others to chime in with what talents they could provide in as smooth a fashion as she could muster.
Alright, Kosara wasn’t liking this cleric person quite as much anymore… She sounded mean. Or maybe she was just cranky for other reasons and this gathering of people and the usual noise levels that gathering of people caused was getting to her. She was going to have to keep an eye on this! She did have a bit of a point though, supposedly this was an adventuring quest where you teamed up with strangers! It was probably a good thing to known what each other can do more or less so they can coordinate a bit even from the start. At least now there was a definite confirmation about her clerical status though!
Now on the topic of the new arrival in the face of Hugh( of name to be avoided) , she grinned at him in agreement.” Indeed, baldness is conspicious!” Kosara chuckled, making a mental note of this funny man. The white tiefling had decided that she liked him well enough and they were going to be friends! She wanted to be friends with everybody in the party anyways, but he had moved in a few steps up on the wanting to be buddy ladder. He then began to go on a bit of explanation of what he could do, prompted by Marita’s stern requests. She was listening in childish awe and interest as he spoke until he was done. Then her grin grew wider.” Sou you ARE a fancy sneaky monk… or cultivator…” She spoke, as if tasting the word and making a weird thinking face.” Nah Monk sounds better!” She finally concluded.
Her attention turned to the next person who was introducing themselves in this case it was V! YES!!! She was a bard! Kosara was glad and now was wondering if she knows music from the south and the deserts or if she should try to teach her some or at least get close to it so she can have somebody play for her to perform when it was required. After all, dances were better when there was music involved. She did have to agree on people being intolerant, not always, but she supposed often enough. In the oasis things were nice, people were kind even to her, but outside after she ventured out to explore? She had met her fair share of such intolerant people. That said, her saying it in relation with the College of Grey Requiem, made it sound like it was the reason for that. Hmm… She was going to have to try to see and recall if she knew anything about that or the names mentioned. History and religion weren’t her fortes. Maybe she should recheck her journal later.” Hey it’s fine with me, V! As long as you aren’t out to murder innocents, burn cities, summon evils beyond our comprehension or any other such evils, you are a fine person and I wana be friends!” She reassured the bard. If she was any of those things… well there was smiting to be done.” And I do agree with you. Sometimes peaceful solutions are the best solutions. On that note, you know any music from the south or the deserts?”
The other tiefling in the group made their introductions next. He was a warrior by the looks and sounds of it. It was a fair trade actually. Warriors were the backbone of every military force! Without them who was going to stand on the front row and trade whacks with the enemy with sharp pointy objects? He did look competent enough if a bit hard on controlling his surprises. That earlier near spittake was very impressive indeed.
Then to her surprise another person showed up! A dark haired woman with fair skin and very good clothing for day to day and rough living. She looked like seasoned traveler in a way and as she spoke on, revealed that she was a Druid! Well the earlier mention of the Moon, was a good indication too actually. She did raise a fair point of how the letter could have reached her, but then again Kosara supposed it wasn’t that weird. After all she found her letter just innocently laying on the road near the place she was having a picnic.” You aren’t late, as Marita said… our host is not here yet, so who’s late and not is yet to be decided! Anyways, hello Naivara! Pleasure meeting you, I’m Kosara. Hope we can be friends in the future!” The white tiefling cheerfully greeted the newcomer before turning back to Marita who started speaking again.
“Alright, I will introduce myself and my skills next then.” She stated and softly placed the mug of beer, licking off the latest beer mustache.” I’m Kosara, I hail from the southern deserts and I’m a trained dancer by trade. I’m a fair shot with this little beauty here.” She pulled out her crossbow.” Also decent with a dagger and scimitars. In fact when it comes to performances, blade dancing with scimitars is my passion.” She smiled.” I know magic in what my Grandpa taught me and it includes a random variety of small things such as what’s usually referred to Thaumaturgy and Prestidigitation, but I can also use healing magic if it’s needed. So I can fight at range or up close if the situation calls for it. I can help with healing and then I can also dance for the enjoyment of the group or the crowds. Plus I do know how to do very good massages to relax the muscles after hard day of work or travel!” While giving her exposition, she made a small transparent figure of herself down to her dancing veil clothes and scimitar in hand. It was in a dancing pose slowly rotating above her left palm in a fashion not dissimilar to how a music box figure would complete with faint musical sounds being played of her favorite dancing song from the desert. She had to dismiss the coolness of her drink, but did kept the one on Kathryn's.
It seems Kathryn's joke gained some more traction then she expected. A comment from Alastor here, some fantasy dreams from Kosara, Victoria's more subtle response. Kathryn replied to Victoria with a simple "I imagine we will." Overall a joke well had and well worth it. She wondered if it was important enough to correct those who misunderstood her joke as fact but she figured they would get it eventually. What she did take note of was an additional new comer approaching the table. Another woman much to her surprise who seemed like yet another religious follower. Kathryn was starting to feel very out of place now considering the number of clerics and warlocks in the room. Her experience with anything arcane was rather limited leaving her to try to figure out how she would now fit into this newly formed group. Kathryn had no magical properties of her own, and had no idea how anything magic or arcane worked outside of a rare occasion that she never got an explanation with. The confusion showed on her face even more as she eyed the spirit that sat comfortably on her shoulder. A horse? Wait? Unicorn? Kathryn was at least able to catch her name, Mona Holcombe. She seemed nice and looked forward to learning more about the woman. "Nice to meet you Mona. Glad to see I am not the only one who noticed the unusual party setup here." It was pretty common for Kathryn to be the only woman on a lot of her caravan guard runs. Even when she was working directly with Ser Lucas it was rare to see more then one other woman in the group. It was a nice change of pace to have that reversed in her mind. It made her feel just a little less out of place.
Hugh approached and introduced himself adding a second gentlemen to the party. He explained he took steps to make sure the place wasn't a trap by hiding in the corner and waiting for them to all arrive. He explained his worries which were understandable, but it didn't help the unease that Kathryn now felt of being watched. She found herself setting her beer down while Kosara squeezed her other arm. With her now free hand she checked to make sure at least one of her axes were free. Though she was better with a sword the axe could rather easily be thrown across the room should she be attacked. She did her best to hide her now building concern of this meeting being a trap. Though she didn't have a lot of concerns with Hugh himself, a lot of that unease did come with hiss arrival and reveal of him eyeing the party before entering. She tried to set aside her bias of the situation to get a better understanding of the man before her. He seemed pretty nice, but he also had a feeling of being worn and beaten down. As if a toll was building up on him.
Kosara was having the time of her life squeezing Kathryn's arm. Kathryn held back a humorous chuckle as the small horned woman was having the time of her life. Kathryn had trouble figuring out if these actions were totally innocent or if there were some more Lewd intentions at play. She was a lot more tolerable then others who wanted her attention though so there was a plus. The comment about massages only left Kathryn more confused about the small girl's intentions. "Kat probably works best." She contemplated how to answer the massage comments for a moment before answering. "Let's see how this quest goes first alright? No point in making promises when we don't know what the future holds." With how several events in her life played out, she found herself pretty regularly not planning for the future outside of rather short term goals. Kathryn found the comments between Hugh and Kosara rather amusing though took note of Hugh's indirect answers. She found it suspicious and she found herself looking around the room briefly to make sure things were still safe. She also noticed the back to back comments about her grandfather and decided to ask about it. "Your Grandfather seems like a rather nice person. Are you close to him?"
An authoritative, almost power demanding voice straitened things up pretty fast. Marita Barel as she introduced herself took charge of the situation, turning this casual get together into a meeting of asset consolidation and mission priority. It was commanding and Kathryn respected it. It reminded her of Ser Lucas when he took charge of the situation. The woman wanted motives in the air, and she wanted to know what each member brought to the table. She explained she was a Cleric of Pholtus, but that didn't mean much to Kathryn other then she held arcane abilities that Kathryn did not. After the quest, she would make it a goal to learn more about arcane magic and religious groups. The members of this new party started listing off their skill sets and abilities and Kathryn was overall very impressed. Hugh was specialized in situations of needing to be quiet and helping the party do the same, Victoria was a bard, which Kathryn wasn't sure how well it would be applied to their situation but the woman had a feel about her that said she could not only hold her own, but that she could cover abilities that no one else in the party could. The woman made a point to explain how her skills would help round out the parties in areas they may have been weak, and she could see the logic in that. Kosara seemed to know a bit more on Victoria then Kathryn did. Alastor much like herself was another martial focused companion. Something a lot closer to what Kathryn was used to working and interacting with, so it was nice to know she wasn't alone in that regard.
Kathryn got ready to explain her own self when a woman who introduced herself as Naivara Gray walked in and introduced herself. Kathryn wondered if she was a woman who demanded the attention of the situation, but watching her interact with the situation at hand it was clear she was struggling. For her, this was an attempt to rip off the bandage then let the situation drag out and get worse for herself. Kathryn understood that idea. She had been like that for years until it had been drilled out of her. She was a hermit? That left Kathryn curious about her lifestyle. She wondered what life was like for her. Was it something like herself and Ser Lucas on the road? Or was it even further from that? Kathryn would have to ask about that at some point. Kathryn added to Marita's reassurance. "Welcome aboard. I'm excited to get to know you as well." Kosara introduced her skill set next, and Kathryn was impressed watching the girl show off her skills in magic. Far more then anything Kathryn knew how to do, some healing magic and cantrips. She seemed to cover a jack of all trades situation which worried Kathryn and without any noticeable armor the girl seemed very susceptible to being squished or stabbed or worse.
Kathryn stood up letting the chain mail slide itself back into place as she took her turn to introduce herself. She gave a short bow before speaking and then stood up once her title was spoken. "My name would be Ser or Lady Kathryn Pyke of the lands of Arcanaple. Whichever you prefer." Her accent got a bit heavier when stating her title as if it could only be said with her accent. "To get into skill sets, I have been trained in a long list of martial weapons, combat styles, maneuvers, and tactics by Ser Nathan Lucas of the lands of Arcanaple for the last dozen years. I can take a beating, and I can give one out considerably harder. My personal specialties are with a long sword, but I am comfortable with a rather large range of weapons. I've been told by a few people I am rather strong, and I am inclined to believe it at this point. Most of my experience at this point comes from guarding caravans and tagging along with Ser Lucas on his own missions when possible." She normally preferred the more humble approach to things, but there was clear pressure to show that she could carry her own weight and assist the party in areas they may need it. So she made an exception. "I look forward in seeing how our diverse skill sets can complements each other." She said with a smile before sitting back down next to Kosara.