I woke up the next day feeling fantastic, having gotten a full night’s sleep for once. I poked my head out of the room, only to find things busy and bustling. Right, barracks, not wilderness. I wandered around a bit, the layout both familiar and different from the ones in Aquiliea, until I found a room where everyone was eating. I sat down, grabbed some bread, and joined the conversation right as a joke finished, and rolling laughter accompanied the punchline.
Wiping a tear from his eye, Julius tried to get back on a serious note. “Alright, now that Elaine’s here, let’s go over the plan for the next few days. You all got a chance to relax yesterday. Today we’re going to take a look at the monster, and plan. Tomorrow we’re going to prep, and the day after, barring surprises, we’ll try to deal with the monster.”
It sounded reasonable, but I was missing a ton. “Do we know what type of monster it is?” I asked.
“Semi-aquatic dinosaur. A Nothosaurus or something like that. Doesn’t tend to live in this area. Also,” Julius grimaced. “according to the person who [Identify]’d it, almost red. Now, that could be an exaggeration, but it might not be. From the reports, fairly intelligent, in a monster sort of way.”
“Sheep-bait?” Arthur asked.
“Yeah, let’s use sheep-bait.” Julius answered. This was almost going over my head. I’d been getting lessons, but more on survival, fighting, and fitness, and less-so on monster tactics.
“Sheep-bait?” I asked. Both questions, same words, but the subtle difference in intonation leading to a completely different meaning. Artemis to the rescue!
“Basically, we get a sheep or two out near where the monster’s supposed to be, and watch within our longest [Identify] range. When the monster shows up to chow down on a snack, we get to see what it is, how it hunts, what level it is, and more! Occasionally we’ll poison the sheep to see if we can easily dispatch the monster, but it rarely works. Usually the locals have already tried it.”
I nodded, mouth stuffed with food. This made sense. I swallowed, asking another question.
“What other methods are there?”
“Elaine, please, let’s stay on-topic.” Julius reprimanded me. I looked down, focusing on my food. Fine.
More discussion occurred, most of it going over my head, like the technicalities of what type of way to stake a sheep down for optimal results, – boring stuff - then we were in for a whirlwind of activity. Before I knew it, we were all gearing up into full weapons and armor, sacrificial lamb at the ready. The reason we were gearing up was just in case something went wrong, and the monster decided that today, of all days, was the day it’d haul itself out of the water, and start rampaging.
“Unlikely.” Said Maximus. “But the one day you don’t prepare for it is the one day it’ll happen. We prepare for it, to make it not happen.”
Superstitious, but whatever worked.
The sun was about a quarter of the way up when we were all ready. Everyone except Arthur were just a hair outside of the gates, gates being left open for us, with the guards having instructions not to let anyone out. Our path of retreat. Arthur was somewhere in the open field before the river, and how the hell was he hiding with no cover!? It was a trampled, muddy clearing, and Arthur was – so he claimed before vanishing – somewhere in there. A small mountain, completely hidden.
A small lamb was staked near the edge of the river, Julius having shown off his speed earlier to get it there. Now we watched. And waited. And watched. And….
I nudged Artemis. She turned, raising an eyebrow at me. I mimed playing cards. She swatted me for my efforts, pointed two fingers at her eyes, one finger at the river. Fineeeeee.
Standing still, doing nothing, was not a strong point of mine. I’d think that [Centered Mind] would help, but it wasn’t doing much – it was more for staving off fear, fright, decision paralysis, and other such incapacitating emotions – but not boredom. Or sleep deprivation. After all, I could still function 100%, I just couldn’t do anything.
Tick. Tock. There-are-no-clocks. Was that a shadow on the river, or the fearsome dinosaur about to emerge?
Shadow. It made me look up at the sky, seeing a few clouds lazily moving about. No problems from above today!
Oh shit, I jinxed it. I clutched my pendant, sending off a prayer to ward off the bad luck I’d summoned. Still nothing.
Maybe it would make things more interest- I cut that thought off. This was boring. Boring was good. I shifted from one foot to another. I amended my thought. Boring was better.
With the sound of a hundred crashing waves, the monster’s long neck broke through the surface of the water, grabbing the terrified lamb, and like a bear trap, its jaw snapped shut on the lamb, before retreating back underwater, as fast as it’d come up.
I took a moment to process and replay what I’d just seen. A long, sinuous neck, connected to a fat, seal-like body. I saw what looked like flippers on the front, the rest hidden beneath the waves. The neck was close to 6 feet/2 meters long, with dozens of sharp, curved teeth in its elongated jaw, each the size of my fingers.
Arthur popped back up, face grim. “Bad news boss. They were mostly right. It’s a Nothosaurus, and while it’s not blazingly red, it’s higher level than Artemis by a chunk.”
Frowns all around. “Alright, let’s get to the wagon and plan.” Julius took the lead, and we jogged down to where the wagon was parked in a neat row. I could feel my chest swelling with every step. I felt like I belonged. I felt like we looked good, and I was helping with that. A silly grin split my face as I kept in time with everyone else, hidden to all.
We filed into the wagon, Arthur squeezing in, and closed the doors. Origen did some inscription-related magic, and I felt the air pop, like it did every night when I slept in here.
“Sound proofed?” Maximus asked. Origen gave him a withering look that said “of course it is, I know how to do it and you get a good night’s sleep every night.”
“For Elaine’s sake, we’re going to be a bit more thorough in our discussion. Who knows, her experience combined with all of our tactics might have us come up with something else. First off – Placate, Kill, Drive off, or Tolerate?”
“Fucking no on Tolerate. It’s killing people, it’s threatening to break in the gate, and nobody can harvest clay.” Arthur quickly jumped in.
“It’s a dumb monster that’s found a nice tasty spot full of food. Placating it is unlikely to go well – it’ll just be back for more.” Maximus added.
“Driving it off is probably harder than just killing it.” Artemis added, casually twirling a knife between her fingers.
“Fine. All in favor of going for a kill?” Julius asked, raising his hand. Everyone but me raised their hands. “Elaine. Problem?”
“I’m not going to stop you, or interfere, or not help, but… I don’t think I’ll ever vote for kill. Maybe that’ll change one day – it is just a monster – but for now….” My voice trailed off as I shrugged my shoulders, looking down at my feet.
“No problem. Got it. Maximus. What do you know about these, what strengths do they have, what weaknesses?” All eyes turned to Maximus, who straightened up.
“Not much. My best guess would be a fairly standard aquatic monster. Likes water, has physical and water-related skills, likely Water element, in rare cases a Coral element. At home in water, bad on land. Unlikely to have a ranged skill, even if it has something surprising – if nothing else, the town probably would’ve seen it by now. To summarize: Strengths: close-quarters combat in water. Weaknesses: Range. Mitigates its weaknesses by using the river.”
We spent a few moments mulling that over. How did you fight a creature perfectly at home under water, who only popped out in ambush attacks?
“Perhaps I’m stating the obvious…” I started off, gulping around a lump in my throat. “But I suspect under-water combat with this monster can be ruled out?”
I looked around the table, getting some heads shaking. Kallisto snorted disdainfully.
“Kallisto, knock it off. Elaine’s not wrong to state the obvious. No, we can’t fight it under water. We’re terribly equipped for it, and it has the advantage even before putting it in its home.” Julius helped protect my ego.
“So, we need to get it out of the water.” I stated. More thinking.
“Or we removed the water from it.” Artemis chimed in after a few moments. “Divert the river, like that Hercules fellow. Re-divert it after.”
“There’s no way we could divert the whole river. The thing’s massive!” Kallisto was being a real party-pooper. I jumped in, more to defend Artemis than prove Kallisto wrong.
“We have a whole town full of people who are pissed that a monster’s eating them, and their livelihood. Put a shovel into each of their hands, river would be moved in a week.”
Julius slapped the table, bringing the attention back to him. “Diverting the river, as interesting as it’d be, has other problems. Let’s re-examine that if we don’t come up with anything else. More ideas?”
“Poison.” Grunted Arthur. Origen rolled his eyes at that. Artemis held up three fingers. Two fingers. What was this countdown for? One finger. Closed it.
In a great chorus, Artemis, Julius, Kallisto, and Maximus:
“You always suggest poison!”
Origen contributed by nodding along.
Right, I knew that. I could have joined in. Wasn’t too late.
Julius took a deep breath to reset the mood. “Arthur, you’re free to have first crack at it with poison. Barring that, we need ideas on how to make it leave the river.”
“Sheep!” I jumped in, eager to participate. Easy answer really.
“Elaine, you saw how careful it was with just one lamb practically hand-fed to it. How easy do you think it’ll be to lure it out even further?”
We battered ideas back and forth, testing them out in the confines of our mind, trying to see how we could get on even footing. Ideas proposed, rejected, modified, rejected again. Some ideas took too long, others required resources we didn’t have, not even with the town backing us. One particular idea – poisoning the entire river to a large, lethal degree – would have worked, but killed the entire town as well. Arthur’s idea, to nobody’s surprise.
However, it was off of that idea I got inspiration. Taking a bite out of my dinner – this planning session had taken hours, on top of how long baiting out the monster had been, I asked.
“Instead of poison, why don’t we use ash, or something similar?”
“Ash doesn’t kill.” Arthur pointed out, pouting. If Artemis told me “kills the entire town as a side-effect.” was a plus in Arthur’s book, I’d believe her.
“No, no, listen. Ash is cheap, easy, there’s a ton of it. Literal tons. We dump it into the river, it makes it cloudy, foggy. Deeply unpleasant. Monster might decide it doesn’t want to be in the river anymore. With a bit of luck, it’ll leave the river, instead of trying to swim into more ash, or whatever other unpleasant thing we dump in. Sure, it’ll kill laundry for a week, but it won’t kill people for a week.”
We thought over the idea.
“How do we know it’ll come out on the right side of the river?” Kallisto pointed out.
Julius had a solution. “We could stay near the town, and we run over to whatever side it comes out on. We won’t be waiting for it, sure, but we’ll be able to react.” He tipped his cup back, draining whatever was it in, thumping it down on the table in a final way.
“Any other thoughts?” A moment of silence. “Alright, you’re all free for the evening. Don’t get in trouble. Kallisto, that means you.” Golden-haired boy looked peeved at that.
I wanted to go out and about, see the town, get into mischief, see if there were mangos for sale. There was a fatal flaw in my plans.
I had no money. I was flat-broke. I spent the night inside, getting a terrible night’s sleep.