Fiora checked her saddle once again, verifying it still held her rations and tent. Rubbing her head, she couldn’t help but let out a mournful sigh.
“Goddess, is this truly the right thing to do?” She mumbled to the wind.
A hand clapped down on her right shoulder, startling Fiora. She grabbed the arm and bent forward in an effort to flip the person touching her.
“Wait, wait, wait!” but it was too late as Fiora sent Jonas crashing down onto his butt. Fiora blinked awkwardly as she watched Jonas curl into a ball, groaning as he rubbed his sore backside. She heard the sound of raunchy laughter coming from the other adventurers behind her, especially Nat. Blushing in embarrassment, Fiora reached down to help Jonas up.
“Sorry Jonas; you startled me,” she explained quickly.
Jonas gave her a sheepish grin, “Yeah, I kind of picked that up. That’ll teach me to be more careful, right?”
“That’s for sure,” Nat joked as she slid over beside Jonas, “That’ll be the best outcome for touching other ladies without my permission.”
“Oh honey, does that mean you’re going to give me permission someday?” Jonas asked excitedly.
Nat snorted, “Huh, in your dreams lover boy. You’re mine and mine alone.”
Fiora rolled her eyes as the two shared a cheesy kiss, “Alright we get it, you two are in love. Stop rubbing it in to the many lonely men behind me.”
Every adventurer who heard Fiora began to loudly boo at the couple, and a few took to throwing dirty things like socks at them. The couple bid a hasty good-bye to Fiora as they ran away from the crowd. Fiora couldn’t help but chuckle as she returned her attention to her saddle.
“I would believe that the contents of your saddle bags have not changed since the fifth time you checked them,” Gran observed as he approached her, “Perhaps your time would be better spent trying to relax; you humans are known to be quite difficult when stressed.”
“Difficult huh? I suppose that’s the polite way of saying it,” Fiora winked at her old friend, “Honestly, this whole mission makes me uncomfortable and stressed.”
“As it should,” Gran nodded, “After all, you have been conscripted into an army you did not serve, sent a mission many believe is suicidal, and all of this has been arranged by the prince and former friend who influenced your entire life.”
“The prince didn’t want to send us for the mission,” Fiora argued abruptly, surprising herself.
Gran raised an eyebrow, “Really, so he didn’t order this entire operation with the rangers?”
“He had too, just like we have to go,” Fiora muttered half-heartedly, “There was no way to argue against it.”
Gran rolled his eyes in a very human fashion, “Please do not tell me you are changing your mind over the grudge you’ve carried for, what, twenty years now? Have your human feelings of affection flared up due to being emotional venerable?”
“What? No!” Fiore shot back angrily, “I’m some school girl who can have my heart so easily moved. It’s just . . .” She sighed as the memory of Prince James defending her came back, “He just . . . protected my honor in a way I hadn’t expected. In front of every general and commander, he actually got angry for my sake.”
“Odd,” Gran noted, “From your many descriptions of his behavior as a child, that action is certainly disharmonious with my initial impression of him. Then again, all nobles, and especially royalty, are certainly well known for hiding their true thoughts behind planned actions. Perhaps he was trying to lower your guard?”
“For what purpose?” Fiora chuckled, “After all, the end result was that I and every adventurer in this town have been sent on a possibly suicidal mission. Why go out of his way to poke the tempers of his generals if I was a disposable pawn?”
“Perhaps he expects you to survive,” Gran countered, “You certainly are one of the strongest adventurers here in town, and it would be good to get on your good side.”
“Maybe,” Fiora said doubtfully, “I guess that’s possible. Wait, I thought you elves were all about looking at the bright side of life?”
“In that case,” Gran said with a hint of a smirk, “I’m positive your prince is trying to use you in a way that positively benefits himself.”
“Never mind,” Fiora muttered, “And he isn’t my prince.”
Shrugging, Gran left Fiora alone with her horse and saddle. Fiora once again opened the saddle bags to check to see if everything was still there.
“This is going to be a rough ride,” she murmured to her horse, “Hopefully, we’ll see the end of it together.”
A little while later, the call out for the troops to gather. Fiora and her fellow adventurers lined up next to the ranger corps, waiting for instructions. Prince Kenneth, better known as Commander Ken, walked up to the front and faced the crowd.
“Good-day,” he called out loudly, “My name is Ken, and I am the commander of the rangers. Adventurers, I greet you and offer my welcome. I know many of you have no desire to be here, but I have been assured by the Prince that this mission was submitted and accepted by the Adventurer Guild as an emergency request. As such, you will all be entitled to suitable compensation.”
Surprised and happy murmurs spread through the adventurers at the news. Emergency quests were rare, and were well known for their high rewards. Of course, one had to live through the request to receive the reward; otherwise it would be given to close family.
“My rangers, I have not forgotten you,” Ken continued, “As the previous ranger general fell in battle, it has fallen on me to be your temporary general until all the paperwork and formalities are taken care of. For this mission, you will all be entitled to double wages and additional rations to feed your families.”
While the rangers kept their mouths shut, they couldn’t hide their happy grins from lighting up their faces.
“Well, that’s all the good news I’m afraid,” Ken chuckled, “From here on out, we are to commence with our mission as followed: move swiftly through the elvin forest, create a base camp some distance from Duran, infiltrate Duran without being detected and locate the hidden treasury entrance. Once these objectives have been reached, then a small team will be sent to retrieve certain important items for the kingdom. Any questions?”
“Commander,” a ranger called out, “If there is time, can we search for survivors in the city? Many of us hope a family member survived the attack.”
Ken pondered for a bit. “Since it has been a week, so long if survivors located a source of water, they would still be alive. However, we would not be able to verify whether the survivors are traitors or fleshlings in disguise. I’m sorry soldier, but I will not allow for the search for survivors.”
“Hey commander, what is the policy on finding loot?” An adventurer called out, “I mean, the city is filled with left behind treasures, right?”
Ken grimaced, “I don’t encourage grave-robbing or looting of cities. My men are instructed to stop all attempts to do so as well.”
“Hey, but this isn’t grave-robbing,” another adventurer argued, “All that stuff is just laying about controlled by demons and flesh monsters. Surely you don’t have a rule against stealing from the enemy, disrupting the supply lines and all that?”
“Sir adventurer, please enlighten me how stealing from someone’s home is the same as raiding an army’s supply line,” one the rangers called back sarcastically.
“Easy,” the adventurer called back, “There is no way those Empire scum came here without mercenaries. They likely decided to pay them cheap in return for letting them loot as much as they wanted. If we steal their loot, then they’ll be pissed and demand more money from the Empire.”
“That . . . that is actually a sound argument,” Ken said reluctantly, “In that case, looting is allowed so long as the loot is under the control of the enemy. That being said, I must firmly declare that any actions that jeopardize the mission’s secrecy will be met with firm disciplinary action. No, that isn’t a joke,” he shouted at the adventurers who had begun to laugh, “So help me gods, I will firmly stick a sword up the butt of anyone who screws with this mission. IS THAT UNDERSTOOD!” Ken roared out the last part.
“Yes sir!” the crowd shouted back.
“Good!” Ken grinned, “Now grab your horses and equipment! We will be leaving for the forest path in 1 hour!”
“Alright girls, I think I have it!” Doc announced happily as his mind floated away from his newest creation,” The obstacle course is finally ready for use!”
The three boss monsters cheered in excitement.
“Poppa, can I go first?” Ayla pressed.
“No, let me!” Aisha said as she jumped on top of her sister.
“My lord, allow this one to attempt the challenge first!” Anadine crawled on top of the twins and begged.
Doc snickered as the boss tower tumbled into a mess of bodies on the floor. “Now girls, I know you three are excited to have something to do now that no one is in the dungeon, but remember that I made this course to test out the new trap designs for future adventurers. That means staying in human form with no tricks.”
In response, the two wargs transformed into their hooded humanoid forms while Anadine hoisted her body onto two tentacles. Doc simulated raising an eyebrow as he looked at Anadine.
“Anadine, adventurers don’t walk on tentacles,” he reminded her, “they walk on longer arms called ‘legs’. Are you sure you can’t copy a leg?”
Anadine scrunched up her face in concentration as her leg tentacles vibrated. With excreted effort, the tentacles slowly morphed into a set of legs covered in slime colored leather armor. Anadine released a non-existent breath to display her exhaustion.
“Those are weird legs,” the twins pointed out, “why are they covered in armor?”
Anadine blushed cutely, “Oh, it’s because I’ve only seen legs like this. I can do the same with the rest of my body.” To demonstrate, she caused the rest of her body to change form. The slime girl now looked like a female adventurer dressed in armor, though it was still slime-colored and obviously a part of her body.
“Hey,” Doc exclaimed, “That gives me an idea!”