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A note from UnstoppableJuggernaut

And now we're onto the Monster Hunting day of the date because Alex and Theresa are craaazy lol. 

Also thank you to everyone that boosted me yesterday, we got Fool up to second place! It's not something I'll ask of you too often, aside from leaving the regular link at the bottom, cuz I know it can get exhausting if there's a bunch of requests in the authors' notes all the time. So I thank you for responding, when I do ask.

It means a lot to me. :)

Also I processed my thoughts on Arcane and I'll dump a thing about it tomorrow.

“Hmmm, I expected someone a little…older,” the steward of the nobildonna said somewhat sceptically. His eyes swept between them. “You are truly Alexander Roth and Theresa Lu, slayers of the mana vampire and allies of Patrizia DePaolo on that unfortunate evening?”

“Well, I feel old on the inside sometimes,” Alex said, then jerked his thumb at Claygon. “Would the four-armed golem be enough proof?”

“Maybe the cerberus too,” Theresa said, petting one of Brutus’ heads.

The steward looked at the giant golem and the giant three headed hound. “Ah, forgive me, I did not mean to be rude. I was merely surprised.”

He scratched his greying-blonde hair and stepped out of the front door of the main house. “You’ll have to excuse the nobildonna: she is resting at the moment, but I trust that I can direct you in her stead. If you will follow me.”

Theresa and Alex followed the older man away from the house.

The nobildonna’s estate was nowhere near as grand as that of Isolde’s cousin. Smaller out buildings surrounded a smaller main house, and there were far less workers and other folk around. They watched the young couple and their hulking companions.

A young boy scratched his head at Alex’s forceballs, which carried supplies, but one clearly had a large picnic basket hanging beneath it.

In all of his wildest imaginings—and he did have some wild imaginings—Alex doubted he would’ve ever imagined going on a hunt for his first date with Theresa: maybe some sort of home cooked candlelit supper, or a lazy summer boat ride, and yet, here they were following a steward through a nobildonna’s small vineyard toward beehives that were kept on the outskirts of her estate.

He glanced over at Theresa, a little nervous about whether or not she was having fun, but saw that she was in full ‘death stalker face’. …and her eyes were shining with excitement.

Well, he wasn’t going to question that.

“Here you can see the damage,” the steward said, gesturing to the hives where keepers in white bee-keeping suits tended their yellow and black-banded little charges.

Brutus sniffed the air at the scent of honey, and Theresa did the same.

“Wow, they really went after this place,” Alex noted.

Several of the beehives had been completely torn open like a bear had raided them. While bees flitted about the other hives in the morning sun, those hives were completely silent, Alex saw mounds of dead bees carpeting the ground.

“That they have,” the steward said, shaking his head. “Pigs have also been stung to death and torn apart during the night on surrounding farms. The nobildonna wants this handled quickly and quietly.”

“Quietly?” Theresa raised an eyebrow. “There’s a bounty with the city.”

“Indeed, but she would very much prefer that any monster hunters who take the contract act professionally and courteously as you explore her lands. She does not wish that she herself or the peasants who work and live here be disturbed. Some monster hunters have a tendency to be quite disruptive when on a hunt.”

“Well, we don’t want to disturb too much, unless we have to,” Alex said.

“But sometimes bloody work gets messy,” Theresa added.

“And she will understand that,” the steward nodded. “Depending on how quickly this is resolved, she is more than willing to offer an additional reward.”

“What kind?” Alex asked.

“Five gold coins.”

Alex frowned, mulling over the sum and thinking back to Ripp’s advice about negotiating hard.

“Well,” he said. “You’ll have to understand, if we’re going to handle this with as little… ‘disruption’ as we can, then we might need a little more. Some of our more powerful assets are…well, they make things go boom.”

He glanced at Claygon. “If you want ‘quiet,’ that means more time, more care, and more danger for us. For example, if we use fire magic, we’ll have to lure the swarm into a field. Extra danger.”

“Mhm, very true…I could see offering a little more.” The old steward’s eyes grew sharp, but the rest of his face remained neutral. “How much were you thinking?”

Alex glanced atTheresa, but she only gave him a guarded look. He thought back to some of the coin he’d gotten from Baelin’s sales of their kills from The Barrens.

He thought about the original price, and how much vespara venom and chitin went for on the market.

Then he opened his mouth.

“Twelve gold,” he said, more than doubling the amount and increasing it to more than a third of the city’s bounty. He pitched a high number so he could hagg-

“Done,” the steward said quickly, offering his hand.

Alex inwardly winced. He might have underestimated how much they’d be willing to pay. In the end, he had no context for how much coin the nobility had, or wanted to part with. Especially those of different ranks.

Not the harshest lesson, but one he’d remember.

He shook the steward’s hand.

“Do you have any questions?” he asked.

“Yes,” Theresa was already stepping toward the smashed hives as Brutus sniffed the ground. “When did this start?”

“Roughly two weeks ago,” the steward said. “One of the bee-keepers noticed more wasps than usual around a hive. Especially for this time of year. The next day when he went to tend the bees, he found the hive smashed open and dead bees on the ground.”

He glanced at the forest. “At first, we thought it was a bear, but then one of our hunters saw a wasp in the woods the size of a terrier. We didn’t believe it at first, but for the sake of caution, we sent our hunt-master out to see if he could find a nest. When he returned, he was screaming for his life; the poor man had been nearly stung half to death. He’d even taken the precaution of wearing a beekeeper’s suit, but with their size and number, the wasps were able to pierce it. We lost a number of our hounds as well. Soon, swarms started appearing in broad daylight, the big ones would open the hives, and the smaller ones would kill the bees one by one. It’s been quite terrible. Last week they started attacking the pigs. The nobildonna has forbidden all on her lands from entering the trees; I fear what this will come to if this menace isn’t halted.”

“Mhm.” Theresa picked up one of the dead bees. “And you said they come from the woods?”

“Indeed, but we have not found the lair. Between the swarms and the vespara being damned elusive, there’s just been no locating it.”

“Is there anywhere else nearby where people talked about these wasps attacking farms?”

“Not that I have heard.”

Theresa shook her head. “And when was the last attack?”

“Earlier this morning,” the steward said.

“Good.”

“…I beg your pardon?”

“Fresh trail, which beehive did they get?”

He pointed at one of the hives and she and Brutus quickly went to it.

The steward turned back toward Alex. “Do you have any more questions? If not, I'll leave you to it.”

“I don’t!” Theresa called back.

“I don’t either,” Alex said. “Roth and Lu Hunting Company will have this cleaned up in no time.”

“Right,” the steward said, as he headed back to his duties. “Good hunting, then.”

Theresa looked at Alex. “Roth and Lu Hunting Company?”

He shrugged. “I think it makes us sound more official.”

She thought about it for a moment. “I suppose it could be worse.”

Snff. Snff.

Brutus sniffed the ground nearby with all three heads, then lifted a snout to the hive.

“Alex, come here,” Theresa called him over and pointed at some of the edges of a hole in the side of the hive. “See that?”

Around the hole were small piles of what looked like sawdust. “They didn’t break the hives open, they chewed their way in.”

“I think the big ones could do that.” He knelt down beside her, examining the hole. Sawdust lay everywhere, spilling onto the earth among the dead bees. Nothing else really caught his attention.

“Well, they don’t leave tracks,” he said, then narrowed his eyes. “Some of the honeycomb’s gone.

“Yeah, I was thinking about that. Here, here Brutus! Take the scent boy,” she said to the cerberus.

Brutus padded over and stuck his left nostrils into the hive, sniffing deeply. His other two heads sniffed the air, then he moved away and started sniffing the ground. After a dozen or so steps, he let out a bark and pointed at a spot while the other two heads rose to keep watch.

Theresa hurried over and sniffed the ground where the cerberus had been sniffing, to Alex’s surprise. She looked up at him, and blushed for a moment. “Uh, my nose is sharper than it used to be. Anyway, it’s sticky right here and smells like honey: It looks like the comb they took was dripping.”

She smiled viciously. “We have a trail.”

“Awesome, then let’s see where it goes.”

Alex, Theresa and Claygon followed Brutus as he sniffed his way toward the tree line. The sound of chimes echoed from above, and Alex looked up to see wooden markers tied high up in the tree branches with windchimes attached to them.

He wasn’t sure what their purpose was. Maybe to alert if someone was stalking through the canopy? Maybe simple decoration? He wasn’t sure.

“It goes into the forest.” She drew her sword and cut away some of the brush. “I think there’s a game trail ahead. Up for a nature walk?”

“One filled with wasps and dangerous monsters?” he asked. “Oh yeah, totally. Sounds super peaceful and in no way constantly anxiety-inducing.”

“Hey, don’t get all scared now, this was your idea, remember?” She winked.

That wink did things to him.

“Yeah…of course it was my idea. Of course. Just uh…one sec.”

He cast Lesser Force Armour on himself and Theresa, then conjured two Wizard’s Hands which he had carry two long sticks with rushes on the end. Essentially, large fans or bug swatters.

One thing he’d learned early about The Mark was that—thankfully—it didn’t stop him from killing insects. Its principles of ‘do no harm’ seemed to specifically apply to combat situations against creatures that he’d have to fight. Killing insects was pretty necessary for a lot of non-combat tasks: a Fool that couldn’t kill mosquitoes or other blood sucking insects would be a pretty miserable and useless Fool in the outdoors pretty fast.

So, he’d made sturdy fans that they could use to drive away, or swat bugs. He’d packed some of his booby-trapped flight potions, booby-trapped mana inhibiting potions, and a new one: a booby-trapped sensory enhancement potion.

It wouldn’t directly harm enemies, but it would crank their senses up to levels much higher than the regular version of the potion. High enough to cause even normal levels of light to overwhelm the eye, normal sound to overwhelm the ear, and so on.

The spell should be good to slow down a swarm and throw off their coordination. Especially if they were in an area where Claygon couldn’t use his fire beams without burning down the woods.

Alex gripped the new potion tightly. “You ready?”

“Oh, yeah,” Theresa said, her eyes shining with excitement. “Let’s have some fun.”

The four of them walked into the trees, with Brutus at the front to keep following the trail, and Claygon right behind him, breaking through branches and crushing underbrush with his big, clay feet. He cleared the path for Alex and Theresa, but he was making as much noise as a pack of angry bears standing on each other’s shoulders stomping around.

So much for the stealthy approach.

The young couple followed the golem, keeping their eyes on the forest around them. They weren’t walking on a cleared path since they were following the trail of honey, so the trees quickly grew thick. Sunlight dimmed and the air cooled. It wasn’t exactly as thick as Coille forest, but it was thick.

Not much conversation passed between him and Theresa, except when she excitedly stopped to point out animal tracks on the forest floor. Alex watched her quietly as she came alive among the trees, and a warm smile crept across his face.

This might not be the most romantic second-half-of-a-date by most peoples’ standards, but Theresa was clearly having a blast. At least at first.

Over time, a frown crept across her face.

“Alex…all of these tracks are old. They’re faded from last night’s rain, and from the passing of time,” she said, bending to examine the earth again. “Most of these are at least a week old.”

She looked up at the trees, searching the canopy. “There’s no birds…I haven’t even heard an insect since we came in here.”

“The wasps are probably eating everything and I imagine the other animals avoid this place.” Alex said.

“You’re probably right…they’re feeding like they would before winter comes…but there’s not much of a winter here.”

“Yeah, they’re probably feeding the vespara,” he said.

Her frown deepened as she stood up, and they started following the trail again. “Where do you think the nest might be? Wasps usually only travel about a thousand paces from their home.”

“Yeah, normally, but according to the monsternomicon: when a vespara’s controlling them, they go much farther.”

“Hmmm, right. And what’d you say vespara’s weaknesses were? Fire—like most other living things—a large amount of insect killer, insect repellant, and cold temperatures.”

“That’s right,” Alex said. “And the wasps that it controls—even the ones that it uses its powers to make super-sized—don’t share its intelligence or senses. Outside of its instructions, they’re just regular bugs.”

“Right. Still, to think they’re scaring off everything else in the forest is really something: at least no people have died.”

“Yeah,” he said. “A little bit strange, but lucky, I gues-”

“Wait.” Theresa held up her hand, dropping her voice.

Brutus stopped. Claygon stopped a heartbeat later with a mental command from Alex.

“What is it?” he asked, falling into one of the positions of the sword-and-oar dance.

She pointed through the branches in front of them. “Up ahead there, through the trees.”

Alex squinted in the direction she was pointing, but couldn’t see a damned thing through the thick, summer growth. “I don’t see anything. What do your life-enforced eyes see?” He laughed softly.

“Wasps. They’re being quiet and covering that tree trunk over there. I heard them before I saw them.”

“Jeez, you heard them over Claygon?”

“Between his footsteps,” she said. “Hmmm. Maybe their scouts? Or maybe sentries: they must’ve heard Claygon by now, but they’re not moving.”

“Maybe they’re guarding their territory,” he agreed, still trying to see them. “We must be getting close. What’d you think we should do? You’ve got more experience with hunting things than I do.”

Theresa glanced up. “There’s no wind, and they’re not coming toward us. We should circle around and see if there’re more of them.”

They slipped around the circle as quietly as Claygon would allow, stopping often, with Theresa pointing out more clusters of wasps hugging the tree trunks. Alex pulled out a piece of paper and began sketching a rough map of what seemed to be the boundary of the vespara’s territory.

“Seems like they go farther to hunt in the morning, but most of the time-“

Suddenly, Brutus growled and sniffed the earth, with one of his heads looking at Theresa.

“What’s wrong boy?” she asked quietly. “What did you fin-”

She frowned, blinking at the ground. “Alex…didn’t that steward say the nobildonna forbade everyone from entering the woods?”

“Yeah…” he said slowly. “Why?”

“There’s tracks here. Human ones…” She wiped the ground with her gloved finger and sniffed it.

“…and they’re fresh.”

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A note from UnstoppableJuggernaut

Deleted Scene:
"Human footprints?" Alex winced. "By The Traveller I hope it's not another Karen."

Lol, alright seeya tomorrow!


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