That time he was born into this world… that wasn't so long ago, was it?
Warmth, darkness... and the feeling of being surrounded by comforting wetness…
Those had been the cambion's first memories in this world: the womb of a mother who his birth had subsequently killed. He hadn't had time to mourn yet. He wasn't sure he ever would. The experience was so surreal, he still didn't quite believe it.
Besides, his world was filled with darkness and wetness again. Maybe he died and this was him being born again? No, no, no. This feeling wasn't like the first time. It wasn't warm and comforting. This time he was cold.
Maybe I'm being born again inside something else? Like maybe I'm being reborn as a clam or a shrimp. Maybe a squid or an octopus... Wait, why am I only thinking of water creatures, I wonder?
In the distant part of his brain that was still conscious, he remembered his last conscious memory.
A river... yes, it was a river. I was swimming... swimming poorly. Okay, so it was more like narrowly avoiding drowning.
After his status alerted him he had poisoned by his own stupidity -- eating those glowing mushrooms should have obviously been a hard no! Well, after that, the cambion had resumed running from dogs while simultaneously expelling fluids from every orifice. Perhaps the stench warded off the dogs while he left a trail of his ichor while shambling in the dark.
He had finally lost consciousness after tumbling headfirst down a steep hill and off the side of a cliff into the rushing river.
He remembered hallucinations of sea monsters and sharks, tall spires of metal that scraped the sky, faces of people he could almsost remember... And then there was that struggle for air, trying to keep his head above water.
The cambion didn't feel dead. But this wasn't awake. A part of him, maybe. But in this wetness and cold darkness he was just floating, weightless, drifting somewhere between whatever alive and dead must be. Disconnected as he was from sensation, it was actually a reprieve from the struggling hours of his first day alive.
Some of his hallucinations ... he was sure they were from the before.
An image materialized in his mind's eye. It was a black Golden Retriever/ poodle mix. Why was it called a golden anything if it was black? That was weird. There was another dog, a golden Labrador/ poodle mix. A golden lab and a black golden... that felt backwards. Why was he remembering dogs anyway?
I think I really must have loved dogs in the before.
He reached out to pet them and they vanished. The cambion was surprised to discover the hairy backs of his hands streching out into empty space. These were long, slender fingers. His fingers, but not his fingers anymore.
These are the delicate ugly, hands of a failure.
Suddenly his hands were filled with fresh burn scars. Then they vanished.
Where did those thoughts come from? Why were they so harsh and angry? Why were they so spiteful and filled with self loathing?
He recoiled from his own memories and was once more thrust into the empty dark in his mind.
Hey Status, I'm not dead, right?
Devour ability triggered: You have metabolized a lethal dose of mana infused poison mushrooms.
Congratulations! You have survived being poisoned.
You have acquired the Poison Affinity.
You have unlocked the passive ability: Poison Resistant
Thanks buddy, I owe you one.
The cambion didn't really believe his status window had been responsible for saving him from getting poisoned, but his gratitude was genuine. He was surprised, then, when after uttering his mental words of gratitude, the dark nothing-ness space he currently occupied in his mind flickered. What he saw were not images, but rather two distinct impressions that suddenly combined and made themselves known in his mind.
A happy status window wagging its tail.
Hah! That's hilarious. Well, I'm happy I'm not dead too. Status, I think it's safe to say you're my only friend so let's get through this together, okay?
There was no transition.
One second he was floating in dim awareness thinking inane thoughts, and the next, he was on all fours in the shallows of a sandy riverbank gushing a stream of water from his lungs. He crawled his entire body out of the water, even as he coughed and sputtered, desparate to breathe. Every attempt to suck in air just drove him to hack more fluids. He just wanted one lungful of air that didn't burn. Please, just one sweet gulp of air. Just one.
When he was finally able to drink in his first full lungful, it was bliss. It burned like hell, but he barely felt it next to the ecstasy of just being able to breathe.
The cambion's body had been through a lot of pain during the first eight hours of his life, and he had yet to eat anything substantial -- although after what his stomach had gone through thanks to those mushrooms, his hunger seemed to have taken a short vacation. The sheer joy of being alive could not be understated however, and he thrust his fists into the air in a celebration.
It was one of his last thoughts before he collapsed on the soft grass where the sandy riverbank ended. He found a clump of especially fluffy grass and curled around it, resting his head on it like it was a luxury pillow. He looked up at the deep purple night sky specked with innumerable stars and searched for a constellation he might recognize, knowing full well that he wouldn't.
He wondered how many hours there were until morning. He was fairly certain it was just after sunset when he had been born, but for all he knew, he lived in a world that existed exclusively at night.
Stars, constellations, morning, feather-down pillows, soft fluffy beds... I haven't seen most of those yet, but I'm pretty sure they're just as good as I barely remember.
The clump of grass would have to do for a pillow. He fell asleep.
Blomdorf the bandit was not attractive. He wasn’t handsome, clever, charming or smart. He was just big.
He was not of the giant race, no -- but close enough he made most big men feel small. And perhaps because of his pitiable life circumstances, he felt this was his only redeeming quality.
He was a man afflicted by an awkwardly square face and patchy head of matted brown hair. He bore a mashed-potato nose that had broken too many times, and no one ever bothered to set it right.
Blomdorf knew he wasn't equipped of an especially brilliant mind—quite the opposite, in fact. Long ago, he had accepted that his lot in life was to follow those who were smarter than him and hope that it kept him fed and relatively safe. His bigness was his meal ticket and, in his uneducated but somewhat accurate opinion, the only reason he was still alive despite his shortcomings.
For as long as Blomdorf could remember -- and his memory wasn't that great -- staying fed hadn’t been an issue thanks to his brother… and his friends. There was always work for a dumb brute like Blomdorf, and as his manager, brother Mentiroso made it happen and handled the money exchange. Staying fed was easy and life was relatively good, if somewhat dangerous. Staying safe and keeping a roof over their head was always a hit or miss proposition. More miss as of late.
Mentiroso, his brother, had always been the smart one. The one who protected them when he was small... well, when they were young. Blomdorf had always been big even when he was small. Mentiroso rescued him from the dirty streets of the inner city of Venice when he was a starving urchin, and got him jobs working for the local thugs, then the country robber barons, and now whatever group Mentiroso weaseled them into. Mentiroso made friends and enemies with reckless abandon. But Blomdorf was content to follow where he led, though it was hard to keep track.
Jobs always made him do things he didn't really care for (like hurting people, or threatening to hurt people). Blomdorf accepted the misfortunes he inflicted on others as just more misfortune in a world filled with misfortunes. But that didn't mean he had to like it.
Blomdorf considered himself lucky to have been given just two blessings in life, besides his brother. He wasn’t smart enough to be a pious man, but for these two things, he was grateful.
The first blessing was his size and stupid strength, which he accepted as his meal ticket, and trusted his brother to manage.
The second blessing was his cat, Mister Blinky.
Blomdorf liked animals because they were easier to understand than people. Most seemed to like him too, but Mr. Blinky was the only one who stayed with him because he wanted to. Mentiroso was family. But so was Blinky. They had been inseparable for years—he never learned to count and so couldn’t fathom how long it had been—so as far as he was concerned, they had been together forever.
Mr. Blinky was a shorthaired mackerel tabby cat with a lovely striped pattern and a perfect 'M' on his forehead (M for Mister, of course). His eyes were a dusky blue cobalt that religiously studied the world with childlike enthusiasm.
Mr. Blinky could stare at anything: children playing ball, bandits cooking (one of his favorites), birds in the trees, and even at Blomdorf himself. Sometimes they stared at each other for what felt like hours (but was probably only a few minutes at most.)
Blomdorf never grew tired of watching the cat watch the world. Blinky had a curiosity for the world that Blomdorf did not share, except vicariously through the cat itself.
The two things at which Mr. Blinky excelled were the following: One, staring at things. And two, Mr. Blinky was really good at blinking.
No, not the everyday open-and-close-your-eyes kind of blinking. With a quiet schwoomf! and a slight shimmering of air, Mr. Blinky could disappear and suddenly appear somewhere else. Mr. Blinky's name was quite practical and relatively uninspired, all things considered. For, he was blinkus cat. A slightly uncommon (but not rare) magical creature that was exactly like an ordinary cat in all ways but one-- its ability to teleport short distances at will.
It had always done it and did so frequently. In fact, that was how they met. One moment Blom had been sitting by a fire out in the field enjoying his crispy fish on a stick, waiting for the rest of his party to come back, and then suddenly schwoomf! there was cat.
Blomdorf had been startled, but only briefly. He then fed the kitten some of his fish on a stick, and that had been that. The blinkus cat stuck around.
Despite Blomdorf and Mentiroso's frequent change in employers and unusually violent lifestyle, Blinky stayed. It disappeared for a while when there was violence. But once things settled down it never strayed far. When it was among Blomdorf and the bandits, it liked to blink teleport onto people's heads or shoulders at inopportune moments, occasionally knocking someone off balance, but mostly he avoided the others and stayed close to Blomdorf.
"I don't care if your cat sticks around as long as you feed it from your share and don't let it get in the way," had ever been Mentiroso's only thoughts on the matter.
And since the cat never really made itself a nuisance, except for the occasional present of rodent it left in front of Blomdorf's bedroll (which on occasion was better to eat than nothing), no one minded the cat too much. Although, a casual observer might remark that some of the lonelier bandits' frequent teasing and snarky sideways glances betrayed jealousy for the affectionate pair, as they seldom had anything like that for themselves.
Blomdorf seldom found himself thinking of things beyond the practical everyday things, but as Mr. Blinky grew older and lost some of his kitten vitality, the near-giant found himself contemplating how much longer they had together. But the thought made him sad and so he didn't think about it often.
It was, however, the first thought in his mind this morning as he woke to the terrible piercing screech of a cat in a death throe.
Blomdorf sat up too quickly, blood rushing to his head, arms flailing. He knocked a nearby crate filled with cooking equipment and supplies which sailed halfway across camp before crashing and spilling pots and pans and cooking implements everywhere. He also quite a ruckus as he stumbled to his feet.
He heard another choked cry of pain followed by the slapping sounds of thigh on ass and recognized it as the poor elf girl being raped again. It was just her reluctant squeal that had sounded frightfully similarly to an injured cat.
"For fuck's sake, Blommy," cried out Ripper, the bandit captain, who was still inside the elf girl and had her splayed over a sizeable log near the embers of the campfire. He was a hairy, heavily muscled man with a thick curly beard. He would be considered large next to anyone but Blomdorf.
With one hand he held the knot of rope binding the elf girl's hands behind her back, and with the other he pushed the elf girl's head against the ground, his fist clutching her tangles of filthy blonde hair. "The hell you even doing? I know you’re strong but, damn! You could have taken somebody’s head clean off with that shit. Now pick up your mess, you half wit!"
Blomdorf awkwardly moved to do what he was told, though he gave the bandit a rather obvious stink eye.
"What's wroooooong, big guy?" the bandit sang ironically, slapping the elf girl's already screaming red buttocks with an open palm. The girl recoiled from the blow and, with a valiant effort, resisted vocalizing her pain. "Is it that you want some of this? You want to wet your dick on some elf meat, don't ya?"
"Nuh-uh," answered Blomdorf in his deep rumble, shaking his head, then looking away. He picked his path carefully through the half dozen bleary-eyed bandits across the camp who were beginning to stir. His clumsiness had woken everyone, and he felt embarrassed.
"Didn't think so," Ripper said, then howled over his shoulder as he resumed shoving himself into the elf girl. "You got yourself your own pussy, right Blommy? Why don’t you go find that puuuussy and go play, you dumb shit! Ha-ha ha ha!”
Blomdorf spared the elf girl another glance: he could not see her face under the ruined hair. From what he had seen when she first got here, the elf girl was pretty: feminine with fierce green eyes. Well, they probably weren’t fierce anymore. Blom didn’t really know where she came from. Ripper had had her for three days now as they hiked across the countryside on their ‘escort’ mission. She had been a fighter for the first two days, but they had also secured her neck with a magic suppression collar. Aside from refusing to scream as loudly as the men in the camp wished, she had not the physical strength to resist.
At least the elf wasn’t a child -- they always looked much younger than they were by decades, but this one had the appearance of a young woman, which meant she was probably older than Blomdorf – not that he had deduced any of that information himself. Mentiroso had basically spelled it out for him to avoid any trouble.
“Miiiissteerr Bliiiinkeeeeey!” called Blomdorf as loudly as he could muster. His voice echoed through the forest. Some bandits who had not fully committed to waking clapped hands to their ears.
Blomdorf reached into his pack and retrieved a rectangular tin can. He peeled the lid of the can and watched as the enchanted metal can disintegrated. The preserved sardines inside were Mr. Blinky’s favorite, and a not inexpensive luxury. Mentiroso hated to see his brother spend his money this way, but it kept the temperamental near-giant happy and relatively compliant in a job environment he was growing increasingly uncomfortable with.
Blomdorf’s eyes wandered around the camp searching for his cat. The preserved sardines were Blinky’s favorite. The sound of the tin lid cracking and then being opened were usually enough to have the teleporting feline in front of him, literally in the blink of an eye.
With a frown, Blomdorf took another look around camp. His eyes settled on the two cages-on-wheels that were currently parked at the far side of the camp near the horses. He set the can of sardines on the ground next to him then drew a pouch from his pack near his bedroll and ambled over in their direction. He passed the empty cage where they usually kept the elf girl when she wasn’t being directly supervised and continued to the second.
The second cage contained the half dozen children the bandits were currently ‘escorting’ to ‘a safe place.’ Blomdorf wasn’t smart enough to figure out for what purpose the children were being taken wherever they were going. The details were lost on him. He knew he was being deceived, but he did not quite know how. Thinking about it hurt his brain, so he ignored it.
The children in the cage were all humans between the ages of 8 and 12. They were awake, and watched him as he approached. They were afraid of the bandits and that included Blomdorf, which hurt the near-giant, as he wished the children would like him.
Regardless of whether they liked him or not, he would make sure they were okay.
Blomdorf had lost his temper once on another job once, when he had discovered a bandit abusing a little girl; he had driven his thumbs into the man's eye sockets. The man had died screaming, his skull crushed in Blom’s powerful hands. Half a dozen bandits were gravely wounded when the whole camp had descended on him to try and calm him down. Mentiroso had had to take him away for a couple of days and feed him an inordinate number of lies before the oaf finally agreed to resume working with the group.
Ripper was the only bandit in present company aside from the near-giant’s brother who knew about the incident. The bandits were under strict orders the children would be unharmed and treated well, kept in their caged transport for their own safety.
Confirming that the children were all still hale, Blomdorf laid the bag of jerky at the edge of the cage.
“Jerky,” Blom said awkwardly. “It’s good. Eat.”
He waited until one of the boys grabbed the pouch and then scurried to the back of the cage where the children divided the contents between themselves. Blomdorf had come to them every morning and they knew what to expect. A few words, some extra food. Then he would walk away.
Blom sighed and took another look around.
He wondered where Mr. Blinky could be. Usually the cat slept on his chest—or, on occasion, on his face, even though that tended to wake the near-giant up. Blinky hadn’t been there this morning.
He walked around the camp, whistling and calling for Mr. Blinky. He spotted his brother who had set up the cooking pot and was now trying to coax the dying embers of the campfire into a workable flame.
Blomdorf clasped hands with his groggy-eyed brother whose jet black hair was defying gravity at the moment as if he slept the entire night upside down.
“Morning Blom-Blom,” said Mentiroso, tossing another bunch of sticks onto the embers, then poking them with his dagger. “How’d you sleep?”
“Have you seen Mr. Blinky?” asked Blomdorf, in his slow, rumbling speech. His eyes scanned the camp again, eyes skipping over the line of bandits that were raucously demanding to be next in fun.
The elf girl had been an unexpected boon to the camp. And while Blomdorf did not like what they were doing to her, her presence had changed the mood of this job for everyone else. The attitude of the bandits had gone from resigned annoyance to something resembling festive. It was so for everyone but Blomdorf and his brother. Well, Mentiroso seemed happier too, though he seemed content to just watch instead of partake (while Blom was awake, and the near-giant was none the wiser).
“I haven’t seen him,” answered the brother. “Doesn’t he usually sleep on top of you?”
“I don’t see him when I wake,” said Blomdorf. “I am worried.”
“It’s probably fine,” said Mentiroso, his attention more focused on the crude display of sexual violence unfolding just a few feet away than on the task of rekindling the fire or paying mind to his brother’s concern over a stupid cat. Suddenly, an idea seemed to occur to the smarter brother. “Hey, Blom-Blom, I think I need some fresh water to boil before we head out for the day. The riverbank is about a ten-minute walk down that hill. Will you grab a couple of those big iron buckets and go fill them for me?”
“What about Mr. Blinky?” asked Blomdorf, his anxiety for his pet starting to show in his fidgeting.
Without taking his eyes off the train being run on the elf girl, he put his hand on his brother’s shoulders and urged him on his way.
“Maybe you’ll find Mr. Blinky by the riverbank,” Mentiroso said. “He probably got thirsty and went down for a drink.”
That seemed to brighten Blomdorf as the possibility made the logical leaps from probability to certainty in his mind.
“Of course!” Exclaimed the excitable oaf. “Blinky was thirsty and is by the river. I will go and fetch water, where Blinky is waiting for me also.”
“When you find Blinky, it’s alright if you stay and play or whatever,” Mentiroso said. “Just don’t get lost. It’s ten minutes that way.”
After Mentiroso confirmed Blomdorf was far enough away down the hill and beyond the trees, he began unbuckling his belt.
“She ain’t too broken yet, is she boys? Save some for me!” he shouted, and joined his bandit brethren and their horrible hoots and howls of delight.
Not ten minutes later, the festivities halted abruptly as a bone chilling howl of grief and rage cut through the air lasting for an inhuman amount of time. Only Mentiroso recognized the sound as his brother’s voice, the idea further confirmed when one of the bandits mentioned he thought the sound came from the direction of the riverbank.
A tremor shook the earth and trees around them. It was followed by a chorus of screeches from various directions, quickly moving in the direction of the riverbank.
“Well boys,” said Ripper pulling on his pants. He kicked the exhausted elf girl off the log, then howled. “Get dressed and put this bitch away. I think I hear us some monsters to go a huntin’. We done fucked the good fucking.”
He picked up his enormous axe from where it was leaning against a nearby log and hefted it on his shoulder.
“Now let’s go fight the good fight and go fucking kill something!” Ripper shouted, a savage grin on his hairy face. “You and you, stay and guard the merch. Everybody else, strap up and follow me.”