“I got to say,” Phac sucked a gulp off his spoon, “this soup is not that awful.”
“Otto knows”, happily nodded the half-orc. “Rats not bad.”
“Are rats all you eat?” asked Rain, but Otto cut him off with a glare. “Intruder not speak. Intruder only fix door.”
“Come on, Otto,” Phac rolled his eyes, “we’ve been through this; he didn’t do it on purpose!”
“He in Otto’s territory, so he intruder, and he bad!” insisted the half-orc.
Apparently, Otto had found an injured Rain wandering in the sewers close to his hut and, ambushing him, had managed to knock him out before the water mage could escape, then tied him up and brought him home. As for what would happen to Rain after that… when asked, Otto had frowned in deep thought and answered that he had no idea. He usually ate rat intruders, but Rain wasn’t a rat.
That didn’t stop the half-orc from holding a grudge though.
“I don’t like you either, Greenie mcFuckface”, retorted Rain and Otto looked back angrily, but Phac hurried to diffuse the situation.
“Chill, guys. We’re all hungry so let’s just enjoy our meal, okay?”
To this, both grumbled but complied, since neither actually wanted to escalate.
After having successfully put Otto’s door back in place - barely functional, but that’s how it was built in the first place - Otto had offered them some rat soup. Phac, starving and having seen no food in the crab nest, accepted the kind offer, and Rain did too. Working had made him hungry.
They were currently seated around a campfire that Otto had built, each of them using a spoon to fish soup from the pot. Otto always held spare spoons in acceptable condition, in case he broke his, and, after being heated over the fire and washed by the water Rain had created, they were deemed sanitized enough to eat with. They didn’t have much choice anyway.
“Why do you live here in the first place, Otto?” continued the Crab Fighter, scooping another mouthful from the pot. “This place is… horrible.”
“Horrible? No! This is home!” Otto argued back.
“Yes, but why?” insisted Phac, and the half-orc looked at him in puzzlement.
“Why… This always home of Otto.”
“Truly? Were you born here?” Rain raised a brow and Otto glared but replied.
“Otto not know where he born, but Otto only remembers here… Small Otto hunted rats and made hut. Now, Otto big, and Otto hunt rats and live in hut”, replied the green giant, as if he was saying something very normal.
“Holy shit man!” Phac cried out. “You’ve been here forever? You’re kidding! Haven’t you ever been to the surface?”
“Otto been to surface, but…”
Reaching out with his spoon, Otto swiped a big gulp from the small, now half-empty pot and slipped it in his mouth, swallowing before his deep, rumbling voice was heard again, tinged with melancholy and pain.
“People bad... They make fun of Otto, and chase Otto back down”, he looked downwards, eyes out of focus as they were lost in thought. “They say Otto stupid, and smelly, and they say Otto bad but really, they bad, not Otto. Otto want be good.”
“So you’ve been here like… forever?” Rain asked again, and now he too was stupefied. “In this tiny, dirty, bug-ridden hut? Eating rats in the stinking darkness?”
Otto, pouting his lips, nodded, and Phac took over.
“Why don’t you go somewhere else? It sucks here!”
“Otto not know if here sucks, but…” he took another spoonful, and this time his hand was lightly shaking, some of the soup spilling out. “But here home. Here, Otto safe. Otto not know anything else. This,” he waved his big arms around, indicating the sewers and the small cavern they were in, “all Otto knows.”
“You’re shitting me, man…” Rain gaped. “So you’ve been here, all alone… forever? How old are you?” he asked, but Otto only shook his head. “No old. Days hard to count. Here, no sun and no moon.”
“But hold on,” Phac spoke, “if you’ve been here all alone, ever since you remember, how do you know to speak?”
“Blue taught Otto to speak. Blue here with Otto, but Blue not talk much”, Otto shook his head, and then smiled broadly, his previous sadness hidden or replaced by joy. “But Blue Otto’s friend. Because Blue, now Otto can speak with you!”
“Oh, man…” Phac and Rain exchanged a glance, both seeing the sympathy in each other’s eyes. Except for the blue screens, this gentle giant had been living here alone, since forever… How had he arrived here as a child? But more importantly…
“Otto”, Phac raised his eyes to meet the half-orc intense, but innocent eyes, sharpened by the constant danger and solitude he’d been forced to endure. “Come with us. You deserve better than this shithole.”
“This not shithole,” Otto frowned, “this home! Otto home!”
“It is a shithole, big guy”, Phac shook his head. “And I can show you something much better, where you won’t be alone, won’t be dirty and, most of all, won’t have to live in eternal, stinky darkness, eating rats for every meal. Honestly, it’s a miracle you’re even still alive!”
“But…” Otto’s foggy eyes swiveled back to his little hut that had been his home, his haven of safety, ever since he could remember. He’d built this hut by himself, gathering planks from all over the sewers, fighting the rats that constantly got in his way, collecting nails and rope, then teaching himself to build from scratch.
It had taken a hellishly long time, and it wasn’t anything beautiful, safe, or even comfortable, but it was something he’d built all by himself, something he was proud of. The dirty mattress he slept on, the pot he used to cook his soup every day, the dirty old spoon he always used to eat, the small table he’d found somewhere and cleaned until it sparked, finding joy in the small, repetitive action that gave his life some tiny, temporary semblance of purpose. In these walls, he’d spent his entire life, in their safety he’d spent hours just lying on the mattress and looking at his status screen, the closest thing to communication he could ever have.
“But it’s home…” he whispered, gentle mist forming in his eyes that tenderly gazed upon the little hut that had always been Otto’s home. “My home…”
Outside the sewers, it was dangerous, and strange, and filled with difficult things. Here, maybe it wasn’t the best, but it was… simple. Familiar.
“I know, big guy”, Phac sighed and placed a hand on the poor half-orc’s shoulder, having set his spoon aside. “The unknown can be scary, but… I promise you it’s worth it. It’s much, much better than where you‘re currently at… You just have to be brave enough to make the leap.”
“Otto brave, but…” he kept looking back. “Otto… not know. Why not Otto stay? Here home, safe, simple.”
“It’s worth it, bud”, Phac patted his shoulder. “This can always be your home but sometimes, home is not the place to be. You can’t like it here, can you? Don’t you want to see the sun, make friends, talk, laugh?”
“Home not place to be…” mumbled the half-orc to himself, working his mind through the words, gazing out at the little cave, pile of planks, and sewer stream that he’d come to call home. Sun… Make friends… Talk… Laugh… Otto want. Otto want a lot. Otto afraid but… Otto want.
“Otto want”, he whispered, in a voice so low that even Phac, who was right next to him, didn’t understand. “What?”
“Otto want”, he repeated, louder this time. “Otto want sun and friends. Otto not want be alone.”
“Good then,” Phac smiled widely, he and Rain exchanging a touched look, “you will come with us, and we’ll be your friends.”
“Friend…” Otto’s orange eyes misted over, his small tusks squiggling with his lips. “Intruder friend too?” he managed to utter.
“Yes,” Rain smiled widely, “I’ll be your friend, too. See? You got two already, nice going!”
“Mm”, he nodded with taut lips, too touched to let out words, before standing up and disappearing into his hut, closing the door behind him as only his shaky voice was left hanging in the air. “Otto say goodbye to home.”
For the third time, Phac and Rain looked at each other, the lit fire between them covering their smiles in dancing lights. “Good call.”
“Just what anyone would do”, shrugged Phac and a moment of silence went by, interrupted only by Otto’s occasional, muffled sobs.
“Now your turn”, began Phac. “What happened?”
“I’ll tell you on the way”, Rain once again submerged his spoon in the pot of soup. “Now I’m hungry. But won’t your crabs be mad at you if you bring the green giant as a friend?”
Phac grimaced; he’d briefly explained the crab situation to both of them as they were working on the door. “Probably, but… I am their messiah, after all. I’ll work things out.”
“Heh”, Rain chuckled, sipping from his spoon. “That should be fun.”
With a light chuckle, Phac picked up his spoon again, sparing a glance for the small hut from which faint sounds occasionally came. Things are going to get better, big guy. I promise.
“Crab King said defeat! Not befriend!” the Crab King angrily rubbed its pincers, eyeing Otto warily. After a tear-filled goodbye to his little hut, in which he’d spent his entire life, the sewer-dwelling barbarian had donned his best set of rags and followed Phac and Rain to the crab nest, where Phac would claim messiah-ship.
Naturally, the Crab Fighter had let them know of everything that had occurred with the crabs, but not of his plan. That, he kept as a surprise, and couldn’t stop himself from grinning.
“I did defeat him. Now, he my servant”, Phac argued back, looking at the Crab King and the rest of the crabs that had come to welcome him at the entrance of the colony. That sure is a lot of crabs…
“What’s it saying?” whispered Rain, but Phac waved him off. “Something about not liking your hairstyle.”
“King afraid for crabs! Green giant is dangerous! He wants steal shinies!” protested the giant crab as Rain fiddled with his hair.
“He won’t steal. He is my servant”, Phac replied decisively, frowning in anger and, when the Crab King tried to speak, Phac cut him off. “Am I the messiah? Or are you?” he asked, piercing gaze locked onto the unruly crustacean.
“You are the messiah. But-”
“No buts. I am the messiah. I say he good!”
The Crab King angrily stared at Phac while Otto and Rain, along with the rest of the crabs - that couldn’t understand 4-word sentences, and therefore hadn’t understood anything - watched anxiously, waiting for the result of their exchange.
“Fine”, finally, the Crab King gave in. “You defeat green giant. You are messiah. We hear your words.”
“Good”, Phac smiled broadly. Would you look at that! Confidence and false bravado actually work! Next time, I’ll write notes on blue paper, throw them at people, and convince them I’m Dunce.
“Now, we must discuss”, continued Phac, eager to fix the dissatisfied crustacean’s mood. “I have a plan. For shinies.”
Immediately, the Crab King’s eyes shone golden as the thought of shinies filled its head.
“Shinies…” it muttered to itself before erupting into a one-crab chorus of praise. “Messiah is great! Crab God is kind! Lead us to shinies!”
Then, turning to the rest of the crabs, the King quickly gave them a run-down of the conversation.
“Green. Good. Servant. Messiah. Shinies!”
“Shinies!” cheered the rest of the crabs and, smiling, Phac couldn’t help but wonder whether all crabs liked shinies or if it was just this one, hyper-excited king that had instilled the rest of his kind with the trend. The beach crabs he met so long ago didn’t have anything shiny.
“Bingo”, he raised a thumb at his two comrades.
“Stupid crabs know Otto good?” asked the anxious half-orc. As intimidating as he himself might be, Otto seemed afraid of the innumerable crabs. “You sure crabs good?”
“Crabs good”, Phac nodded, reassuring him for the thousandth time. Otto feared the crabs just as much as they used to fear him. According to him, he’d had some very… unpleasant experiences, involving painful pincers and himself sleeping with a hand hanging off the mattress. Otto’s story really did give a new meaning to the phrase ‘monster under the bed’.
“I’m not really sure what’s going on,” commented Rain, watching the crabs cheer and joyfully interact with each other, “but it sure is hella cool. You have a knack for getting yourself in crazy situations, don’t you?”
“That’s what being a Lost is all about”, winked Phac, and Rain rolled his eyes in response. “I’m a Lost too, you shelled bucket of snaps, but I ain’t collecting followers like stamps.”
“And whose fault is that, Drizzle?” retorted Phac before turning back to the Crab King, as the cheering was beginning to die down.
“Crab King”, he said, and the car-sized crustacean turned to regard him. “We must discuss plan.”
“Yes, plan, shinies”, it enthusiastically agreed. “My nest not good. Holy stone cavern?”
“Sounds good”, Phac quickly let the others know and, accompanied by a host of excited, curious, wary, and joyful crabs, they all headed to the smaller cavern that hosted the ancient, oversized stone tablet. There, after greeting the two Level 13 crabs that stood guard, Phac, Rain, Otto, and the Crab King itself entered the cavern while everyone else stood outside, the crabs fighting for a chance to come closer to the entrance and gaze upon their messiah, the one that was destined to lead them to the apex of crabhood. And to shinies. Mostly shinies.
“What’s that?” Rain gaped at the giant stone tablet, but Phac brought him back. “A stone. Come on Rain, we have work to do.”
“You must translate, Snappy”, Rain shot back. “I’m fine with whatever, and I guess that so is Otto. Just work it out with the crab, okay? I’ll be here, watching this beauty. Oh, do you have a pen and paper? I bet a drawing of this would fetch a great price.”
“I’ll… ask”, replied Phac but, unfortunately, the crabs didn’t have any paper. Which made sense, by the way; of all the things that could have washed up at the sewers, paper wasn’t the easiest one to survive contact with the water.
“Shame”, Rain shook his head and went back to observing the tablet, accompanied by an impressed Otto.
“Crab King”, began Phac, ignoring the other two. He and the oversized crustacean were currently standing by the stalactite in the center of the small cavern, illuminated by its blue glow. “You call me messiah. You want get shinies. And I, will give. I have a plan. A great plan. A plan for shinies.”
“Tell me”, replied the Crab King anxiously.
“Where you get shinies?” asked Phac.
“We? In tunnel rivers. They sometimes come down.”
“Exactly. But from where?”
The Crab King tilted itself. “From surface?”
“Precisely, my friend! From the surface!” cried out Phac. “There, they have shinies. Many, many shinies. Much more than you.”
“More than me?” the Crab King made a strange motion that could be considered to be frowning, and Phac was impressed; he didn’t know crabs could frown.
“Much more than you”, he asserted. “But crabs must shinies. Not humans. Humans not love shinies! Crabs do! Shinies must be saved!”
“Humans no love shinies?” yelled the Crab King, his horror at the thought so overwhelming that it jumped in place before anxiously replying. “Poor shinies… Bad humans! Crabs must have shinies! Humans are horrible! Oh, but not Messiah.”
“Are you saying… That we must steal?” replied Phac, fake surprise on his face.
“Must be so, but…” the crab began pacing left and right in thought. “Crabs not go surface. Humans hunt crabs… And humans stronger.”
“But I am here”, reminded Phac. “And I am strong.”
“Hmm… Messiah wants invade humans?” wondered the crab, narrowing its small eyes.
“No invade”, Phac shook his head. “Humans not that bad. We must not kill. We must only steal. Rescue the shinies. They not love them.”
The Crab King didn’t reply, only frowned, and Phac continued to explain his plan.
“Crabs use tunnel rivers. Crabs go surface. Crabs steal shinies.”
“Crabs, rivers, surface, shinies?” asked the Crab King, clearly confused by Phac’s plan and he, sighing, went on to explain in greater detail.
The plan, aimed at countering whatever Reginald May was planning to use his Badge Golems for, was simple. Through the sewers, the crabs had easy access to the toilets of pretty much every house in Salom. Through there, the smaller crabs could infiltrate the houses at night, while the residents slept, and steal the Adventurer Badges. And if the crabs weren’t enough - which they probably weren’t - they would just have to each visit multiple houses, like reversed, side-stepping Santa Clauses.
Simple and, in Phac’s own, completely unbiased opinion, a work of genius. They didn’t even need to find out what the Guildmaster planned on doing, they could just destroy his plan from the roots! Of course, the invading crabs were bound to bring some unrest in Salom when they were discovered, but… They wouldn’t hurt anyone, right? They seemed pretty well behaved. And they could probably easily escape too, again through the toilets, or through the manholes on the streets.
Through the same manholes, the bigger crabs could launch an assault on the badge production facilities, whose location Rain would probably know. If not, he would definitely know where the people who knew were, and then Phac with his two companions, along with an elite contingent of crabs, would be on the task.
Then, after everything had been taken care of and all of the available badges had been retrieved - because Phac didn’t doubt that some of them would be hidden or just not found by the not-so-smart small crabs - it would be up to him to somehow deal with the crabhunt that would undoubtedly ensue. Perhaps he could claim responsibility and draw everyone’s ire on himself, or just take the crabs and escape to the sea, where the sewers ended.
The crabs would have to agree to the possibility of being hunted down and forced to move, but Phac trusted they would not have a problem. They had mentioned, after all, that the messiah would lead them to the surface and to shinies, and Phac was about to give them both.
Regardless, after that, everything would be up to him. He did feel bad about risking the lives of the crab colony, but… He would clearly detail the situation to the Crab King - besides tempting him with shinies -, and the decision would be his to make. If the Crab King refused, Phac would have to resort to informing Makaran and trying to make this a public battle of diplomacy, which he instinctively felt would fail. Reginald May would have definitely planned for this, but who plans for a surprise crab army?
And besides… Phac’s trust in Makaran had been shaken. Not only had he withheld information about the Guild infiltration - like the fact that Rain and Meadow were paid mercenaries - but there was also the fact that, truthfully, Phac didn’t feel that such a big Badge Golem conspiracy could have kept itself hidden from the eyes and ears of the halfbloods. Something stank and his instinct told him to keep Makaran out of the loop if he could help it.
So, Phac and the Crab King sat down and had a long chat where Phac detailed out his plan for the King to hear. He tried his best to be as honest as possible, not hiding the possible repercussions for the crabs, or the consequences their action or inaction might have on the people above. He really hoped that the Crab King would agree, but it wouldn’t be right to trick him. If the King was going to risk the lives of his colony, he had the right to know everything.
And after Phac was done with putting the entire plan in 4-word sentences - one of the hardest and most annoying tasks he’d ever had to do - the Crab King stood in silence for a long time, considering it.
Phac waited, unconsciously biting his lower lip. And the minutes ticked by, with the Crab King not speaking or expressing emotion. By now, Rain and Otto had gotten bored of the stone tablet and were waiting, which meant that Phac explained the plan to them too. He’d actually forgotten that they couldn’t speak Crabbian, or he would have explained it beforehand.
“That sounds like the stupidest thing I have heard in my entire life, and it can easily go wrong at pretty much every part of the plan”, was Rain’s comment. “Meadow would have a thousand reasons to shoot it down. But I would love to see it happen.”
“Otto not understand much,” replied the half-orc, “but Otto thinks secret crabs bad. They hide under bed and snap fingers. Otto thinks Phac good for making crabs fight secret crabs.” Secret crabs was the term Phac had resorted to in order to make Otto understand what the golems were.
Phac smiled weakly at their replies, but they didn’t reassure him much. His main point of concern was the colony’s safety, and he doubted that either of his two companions could sympathize.
Looking at the Crab King, who was still in thought, Phac allowed his own doubts to surface. The plan seemed good in his mind, but it could also be completely stupid. As Rain had said, there could be a thousand reasons why it wouldn’t work but he, at the very least, couldn’t think of any.
He didn’t have any illusions of being a master strategist but, for better or worse, he was the one who had to decide, and there was no time to lose. Now that his plan had been uncovered, the detestable Guildmaster could strike out with his golems at any time, doing whatever they had been designed to do.
Phac was used to listening to his instinct and, most of the time, it was correct. Now, the same instinct told him that, as unlikely as this plan working might seem, it was the right choice.
“Crab King agrees”, finally spoke the King. “But there is condition. Crabs must take shinies. Not only golems. Many shinies. Shinies deserve be saved. Humans not love them. Crabs will.”
Phac cracked a smile. One more thing that could go spectacularly wrong but, if it saved their life, he doubted anyone would mind a couple of gold coins missing. How much could the crabs carry, anyway?
“Crab King”, he said, extending a hand to shake the King’s outstretched pincer, amused at how handshake was a universal motion. “You got yourself deal.”
It was currently around noon in the surface world, which left them with half a day to work on the details. And after the sun fell, there would come a night that Salom would never forget.
The night of the Crab Heist.