“Sorry about that,” Zedna said, walking back over to join the other two. “Just some trash that needed to be taken out. I do hope it can serve as a small demonstration of my abilities.”

If that’s small, what’s large? Tormacc thought to himself. He hadn’t trusted Zedna before, and he didn’t trust her now, but one thing did change after the battle: he was now one hundred percent certain that if she wanted him dead he would die, maybe without even knowing what killed him.

Frowning internally, he thought back to their previous conversation. Hopefully he was properly respectful. Judging from the contents of their earlier talk, Zedna only needed Athra to help her cross the mountains; he was just extra baggage. So far, she seemed to treat them as a pair, but as soon as that stopped being the case he could be in trouble.

“Oh, and here’s a gift,” Zedna said, laying the storage devices she just looted from the dead bandits on the table. “Think of it as a token of my goodwill. This little bit of wealth is useless to me, but it might be useful to the both of you. Of course, there will still be proper payment once we cross the mountains.”

Tormacc and Athra shared a look, both a bit flummoxed by the current situation. In the span of a few minutes they went from talking to someone who they suspected might be suicidal to talking to a supreme expert who held their lives in her hands. It was a surreal experience, and Tormacc suspected he had never before been forced to change his opinion of someone so drastically in such a short period of time.

Hesitantly, Athra reached out and picked up a storage ring, inspecting what was inside it. One by one, she looked through them, her pace slow and deliberate. Tormacc was itching to inspect them too, but he let Athra have free reign, the recent revelation about Zedna’s power making him think twice about touching what might be a gift for Athra alone. After what seemed like hours, but was only minutes, Athra wordlessly picked out half of the storage devices and slid them in front of him.

Taking this as a sign, he quickly swiped them off the stone table and into a bag before turning back to Zedna, ready to resume negotiations. The sharing of loot was a clear sign that Athra still viewed him as her companion, and as such, he was part of the negotiations too. He had been afraid she might ditch him and instead hug Zedna’s leg by herself, but thankfully she seemed willing to let him join in on her good fortune.

“You’ve certainly demonstrated your power,” Tormacc said, restarting the negotiations. Athra really should have taken over since she was the primary party being courted, but while Zedna might not be able to read Athra’s expression, Tormacc could, and right now she was, to quote, “like a small rock meeting Great Rock for first time”. It was best he spoke up until she could recover her faculties. In fact, he suspected that she had been sorting through the storage devices on autopilot, not truly conscious of her actions.

“I won’t lie,” Tormacc said, taking a serious tone. “With how the both of you have described the mountains, I thought there was a low chance of your offer actually being sincere. But in light of recent events, I’ve changed my mind, and I think Athra agrees with me. “

“That’s good to hear,” Zedna said, a cheeky smile on her face. “So does that mean you accept my offer?”

“Can you go over the terms again?” Since Athra was still in shock, he was stuck buying time. And besides, it would be good to hear it again anyway, as before he hadn’t been listening seriously.

“It’s simple. I would like the two of you to temporarily form a party with me in order to cross the mountains. I’ll be primarily responsible for fighting the Stone Wurms and Athra will be responsible for scouting for them and any other dangers the mountains contain. You’ll be tasked with all of the support work. After we reach the other side I’ll show the two of you where the exit portal is as a bonus and give payment for services rendered, and then we’ll go our separate ways.”

“Just to confirm,” Tormacc said, “you’re positive you can kill the Stone Wurms?” Fighting monsters was very different than fighting people, especially as the Stone Wurms were likely to have a tough exterior, something most Humens weren’t known for.

“I’ve fought them before,” Zedna said. “They’re a tough opponent, but nothing I can’t handle. The problem is finding safe areas to rest, which is what I need companions for. The mountains cover too large an area for me to cross them in one go without rest.”

Hearing the details confirmed once again Tormacc felt the surrealness of the situation wash over him, his brain not quite sure how to process the information. It almost felt like a prank. But it was real, or as best he could tell Zedna was sincere in her request. Her story seemed sound, and besides, what use would she have to lie to them? If she wanted them dead, she could do it herself; that much was made abundantly clear from the recent fight. No, she seemed to want Athra’s cooperation willingly, and he came along as a packaged deal.

During this time, Athra was slowly recovering from her shock. It had been one thing after another, and as someone who normally took things slow and steady, the constant reevaluations she had been forced to make had caused her to momentarily fall into a fugue state. Unlike Tormacc, Athra was fine slowly accruing more Essence. She didn’t feel herself under any pressure other than to keep ahead of the Essence tax. It was her nature and that of her people.

 It made sense for a being made of rock who could live for hundreds of years. Looking at it one way, Athra and her people weren’t truly alive in the traditional sense. They were more like a bundle of rock animated by energy. Not quite a golem, but somewhere in between that and a living being. But it wasn’t just the shock of the situation, it was also the intense threat Athra felt that made her zone out, her mind in turmoil.

This Shard was practically tailor-made for Athra. The only downside was that the Stone Giants were able to sense her presence due to their shared Stonebending abilities. But for others, there was little on this Shard of interest, which was why Athra was so shocked to find someone as strong as Zedna.

While she didn’t think she was the strongest person in the Shard, Athra could submerge herself underground, enabling her to preserve her life if she ran into anyone stronger. But Zedna wasn’t just a bit stronger, and that worried her. She hadn’t been completely honest with Tormacc, especially when they ran into the trio from Zedna’s gang earlier. She could have defeated all three of them by herself, but she wanted to see if her new companion was worthy. He passed the test, and in the past month she had grown fond of him, looking at him like how a bigger rock looks at a smaller rock.

But part of the reason she was comfortable approaching Tormacc in the first place was her confidence in fighting him off should he attempt to backstab her. With Zedna, that wasn’t an option. Granted, Athra felt the same as Tormacc in that Zedna had no need to backstab them, as she could simple stab them from the front, but it was a cold comfort, the weight of being around someone who could easily kill her making her feel like a small rock again. She didn’t like the feeling.

Once she was finally able to calm the waves that had been assaulting her psyche Athra turned her attention outwards again, where she was met with two burning stares. Tormacc’s was rather uncomfortable, looking at her like she made some social faux pas, his eyes urging her to correct it. Zedna’s was calmer, but looking back into those yellow eyes, Athra once more felt just how small a rock she was in comparison.

“You were spaced out there for a moment,” Tormacc supplied helpfully, noticing how lost Athra was. He had tried to engage in small talk with Zedna, but there wasn’t much else to say regarding her proposal without Athra’s input, and he ended up floundering under her gaze, eventually lapsing into an uncomfortable silence, which ended up with both of them starting at Athra.

“Are you awake now?” Zedna asked. A part of her was impatient to get on with things, but she had waited for years already, what was another few minutes? And besides, it didn’t seem like a good idea to rush someone make of rock.

“Yes, am awake now,” Athra said. “You wanted to join Party, yes?”

“That’s correct,” Zedna said. “I would like to temporarily join the two of you until we cross the mountains and reach the portal on the other side.”

Athra sent Tormacc a questioning stare, trying to read his expression. She wasn’t very good at that, but luckily he understood what she was silently asking, and nodded his assent.

“We agree,” Athra said, not mincing words. It may take time for her to make a decision, but once a boulder gets rolling, there is no stopping it. She would be a fool to not agree to Zedna’s proposal, not only because of the benefits offered, but because of the consequences should she refuse. Zedna had been nothing but polite so far, but there was nothing to say she would stay that way if she didn’t get what she wanted. Athra still hadn’t forgotten that until very recently Zedna was the leader of a group of bandits.

Zedna seemed a bit surprised to receive Athra’s Party invite, but she soon accepted, and the duo became a trio.

While Athra and Tormacc agreed to Zedna’s proposal, there were still a lot of details to hash out, such as what formation they would use and how they should respond to a crisis. Zedna would be their primary fighting force, but that didn’t mean Athra and Tormacc could slack off. In fact, far from it, as unless they carried some of their own weight the pressure from battle could easily become too much for Zedna to bear. And while she herself wouldn’t be in danger, they might be.

The planning passed by in a whirlwind, Zedna easily facilitating a good group dynamic that left everyone satisfied. Her years as a leader weren’t for nothing, and it was obvious she knew how to cater to the interests of multiple parties at once, easily solving small disputes that had the potential to fester and become larger ones if left unchecked.

The planning stage passed smoothly, but it wasn’t without its hiccups. Or rather, some of the events that transpired as part of the planning stage almost caused Tormacc hiccups, so great was his surprise. He thought he knew Zedna’s strength, but as he had missed most of the battle, if you could call a slaughter a real battle, he hadn’t actually seen her in action. That changed when she insisted they do some practice runs on some Stone Giants to get their teamwork down.

Needless to say, the Stone Giants didn’t stand a chance. Tormacc almost forgot his role in the battle as he watched slack jawed as Zedna caved large chunks off a Stone Giant, large echoing booms ringing out as slabs of stone fell back to earth. Zedna had stressed that she was more of an assassin type, focusing more on speed and precision than raw strength, but he wouldn’t have known that from watching her fight. Despite wielding large daggers Zedna’s slashes created giant furrows along the giant’s skin, her slices reaching much deeper than they should have considering the length of her weapons.

Two days of planning later they set off towards the mountains, their preparations finally finished to Zedna’s satisfaction. Tormacc was a little grumpy about her coming in and coopting their Party, but deep down he was more impressed than anything. There was a certain elegance to how she did things, and part of him wanted to take notes. He didn’t have any plans to become a leader, but you never knew what the future would have in store, and he could already tell that he was growing immensely from watching her in action. Even if he got nothing else out of the trip learning from someone so experienced was a worthy reward in and of itself, and he made sure to absorb every drop of her knowledge she was willing to share.


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About the author

Root Greevil

Bio: Hello! I am an avid reader turned amateur author who hopes to one day write something worthy of professional publishing. Until then, I am posting my work on Royal Road for people to enjoy and so I can receive feedback, hopefully allowing me to improve my craft and write better stories.

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