Chapter 9 - First Contact II
Having silenced his companions, Niel took a brief moment to scan his surroundings. A hellhog’s nest was a dangerous place and the pair he was traveling with had made enough noise to attract an army. Just like the good old days. Eric and Meg had always been loudmouths and the Rite of the Lost Library had hardly affected either of their personalities. In the past, all members of the trio had possessed the power needed to justify their lack of caution, but they were true veterans no longer. The ritual had robbed them of much of their power.
Their ability scores were still intact and inflated for their class levels, but their experience worked against them more often than not. The habits they developed no longer suited their new armaments. Attempting to nock a nonexistent arrow onto a blade would only lead to self-harm, after all.
“I think it’s gone.”
Niel narrowed his remaining eye. It took the largest of the three werebears—the only one who was transformed—an extended period of time to conclude that the lair’s master was away. With all the racket they made, the predator would have already attacked had it still been nearby. That much, he was certain of, but he had still needed a few extra moments to confirm its absence. The permanent loss of his ability to see everything around him had left him jumpy and spineless. At times, he felt as frightened, skittish, and powerless as a motherless cub.
“This one’s made a lot of kills. It’s likely close to fifty,” Niel said.
He settled his gaze on the beast’s bone collection. Or at least he tried. His eye kept darting around the room, stopping him from focusing on it entirely. Something seemed off. The skeletal remains of the hog’s prey were scattered throughout the alcove. Most of the blood-drinking swines preferred to keep their belongings stuffed away in a corner.
“Fifty!? We have to get out of here. Now!” shouted Meg.
Evidently, Niel wasn’t the only ex-Abyssal Marksman with crippling anxiety. Meg had started backing out of the recess with her shortsword drawn. The bravery she possessed during her time as a soldier was nowhere to be found. Had they still been what they were two years ago, Niel would’ve dismissed the obvious display of unease as a joke. A hellhog a few levels shy of its ascension would have been nothing to them, a minor inconvenience that could be dispatched with a single arrow. But now, the famed sharpshooter was a mere apprentice to the blade. And she would never be able to wield a bow ever again.
“The fuck do you have your panties in a knot for, you pathetic twat?”
Unlike the berserker, the party’s priest wasn’t willing to hold his tongue. He too had been forced to give up both his classes, but he hadn’t taken it nearly as hard as everyone else. For Eric, losing everything was just another everyday occurrence; his crippling addiction to risky gambles was concerning to say the least.
“Knock it off, both of you. We’ll be fine as long as we leave before it comes back.”
Neil pacified the two for the hundredth time as he leaned over and began inspecting the hog’s collection. He wanted, needed, to sort through it. To confirm that it hadn’t done Gurd in.
Oddly enough, a chill ran through his spine as he started to pick up and examine the various remains. It was like what he felt when his All Seeing Eye picked up on a hostile observer or enemy spy. He knew it was impossible that the skill had returned to him, but he snapped to attention and examined his surroundings regardless, his eyes as vigilant as they could be.
“Calm the fuck down, you dumb, furry cyclops. There ain’t shit here.”
Eric gave him a reassuring pat on the lower back as he and Meg joined the tallest bear in the tedious, clerical task of sorting through the various bones.
“I think some dumbass tried fucking with it.” Eric spoke up again almost immediately, and not to hurl an insult at one of his companions. It was a rare occurrence, but a welcome one. “And it ain’t been long since he’s fucking done it too.”
“What makes you say that?" asked Meg.
“This fucker right here.” He raised the crushed skull of an eggeye. “You see how it’s still got bits and pieces of flesh on it?”
“What about it?” asked Meg.
“Dumb twat.” Eric lightly chucked the skull at her. “Use that damned head of yours and think about it. How many hellhog nests have we raided? And how many of the fat fucks have had any dirty bones lying around?”
He picked up another, cleaner looking cranium and started spinning it on his index finger.
“None of them, now that you mention it.” Meg took a long hard look at the skull, then set it down in front of her.
“Aye, they love keeping their shit clean. You know how these creepy ass sniffers start using bone armour when they ascend? I reckon it’s ‘cause of that.” Eric set his skull down such that it was looking Meg in the eyes. “Only way one would leave its shit like this is if it got pulled out of its nest ‘cause some unlucky dumb fuck decided to piss it off while it was eating.”
“Do you think it might have been Gurdy?”
“Might’ve.” Eric flashed a glance at Niel. “You okay, One-eye? You haven’t said jack since I started explaining shit to the bimbo.”
“I think I found Gurd.”
The largest of the three werebears raised his hand to his face, covering his eye as he slowly shook his head from side to side.
“Bullshit. You’ve been staring at a wall, and we both know your blind ass can’t see jack through them anymore.”
“He’s there. In the corner.”
He pointed to a werebear skull with a pair of silver prosthetic fangs. The unmistakable trait belonged to the leader of their regiment. He lay still now, as defeated as the kingdom he had once served.
“No! Not Gurdy!”
Meg stumbled over to it, picking it up in her hands. She nearly dropped it, twice, as she looked over its features. Her trembling was even more intense than Niel's. But neither of them had any tears to shed. Not after the war.
“Fuckin’ hell. I can’t believe it. Slippery old Gurdy’s got himself killed.”
Even Eric was shaken. Gurd had been the only one of them to unlock a Llystletein class. And the only one to look as if he had a shot at escaping. A shot at avenging the Queen of the Gorgons.
“I think this was his camp,” spoke Niel in a hushed tone, “before the beast took it from him.”
He pushed aside a haphazardly stacked pile of corpses to reveal something that had caught his eye, a few pieces of wood and several bits of scattered cloth, remnants of a tent. There was even what looked to be a chair that had been violently destroyed, no doubt the hog’s work. The crimson stains covering the material led Niel to suspect its involvement in Gurd’s death.
“We should back the fuck out, and soon,” said Eric, seeing both his party members too stunned to act. “We can put him to rest once we get our asses back to the goddamn citadel.”
“Yes… yes. Let’s.” Niel took a few deep breaths, then placed a hand on Meg’s shoulder. “He was the best of us, Meg. Killing something that got him is beyond us.”
With a slow nod, the party’s sole female turned around. Her head was still hung and her whole body still shaking. He sympathized with her. Hell, even Eric sympathized with her. The former vagrant had refrained from referring to their dead companion with one of the usual rude nicknames. And that was certainly not something the man was known to do.
“Alright, fuck, fine lady, fine.” Seeing the look on her face, Eric sighed. “If you feel that bad about just leaving the fucker that got him, then we can at least delay the spiny fuck’s ascension. Won’t undo what he did to old Gurd, but it should still be a kick in the nuts.”
“That’d mean staying for another ten to fifteen minutes. It’s risky, but I wouldn’t be against it,” said Niel.
“Me either,” whispered Meg.
“Then help me get all its shit together. And be quick about it, we need to get the fuck out the second we’re done.”
The trio spent a few minutes putting everything but what they identified as pieces of Gurd’s skeleton in a pile. The bones that clearly belonged to him were instead taken by Niel, who put them in his pack for safekeeping.
Once they were done, they stepped back and allowed Eric to work his magic. Literally. The priest called upon his God’s divine might to set the osseous matter ablaze.
The act once again led Niel to feel a chill. He was practically convinced that they were being watched. But no matter how much he looked around, he wasn’t able to find anything. In the end, he dismissed the sensation. He wasn’t in the mood to care about the tricks his mind was playing on him.
Claire was miffed. The strangers had, for whatever reason, chosen to destroy her bone collection. Granted, it didn’t exactly belong to her and she was already done with it anyway, but that didn’t make her feel any better about its loss. In her mind, she still had a claim to it. She had been the one to slay its previous owner, after all.
“At least I got here before them,” she mused, as she tightened her grip on her newly acquired bone club.
Contrary to her expectations, all three of the group’s members had been of the same race. She recognized them almost immediately as werebears even though it was her first time seeing them. Like most other beastkin, they were anthropomorphic and possessed a humanoid body plan. Their identifying traits were their rounded ears and their thick, fuzzy arms. The latter was much more easily recognizable. Their paws remained present even in their more human-like forms, the result of which was a race-wide loss of dexterity. In exchange, they gained the strength to snap the spines of grown men barehanded, a trait well documented in many a bard’s songs. Another of their well-known racial characteristics was the ability to transform into a hulking ursine beast, a state of greater power and energy. Most refrained outside of combat as it increased the need for food and sleep, but evidently the largest member of the group didn’t quite care for that particular weakness. He had remained in his grizzlier form since she first noticed him. The Tracking skill convinced her that the beastman was well over a thousand pounds. He was so bulky that he likely could have crushed her with his weight alone.
The other two weren’t any less intimidating. The female was far too light on her feet for someone with as much girth as she had height. Despite her gut claiming otherwise, her extremities seemed to suggest that her body was made of pure muscle. Her well defined arms and legs proved that her excessive width came not just from a lack of restraint at the dinner table.
Finally, there was the man that seemed to be in a perpetual state of annoyance. He had demonstrated, by cremating her resource pool, that he was powerful enough to erase all traces of her with a wayward spell, and the combination of his shaved head, lengthy neckbeard, and maddened gaze led her to believe he wouldn’t be against the idea of putting that theory to the test.
Still, she’d been angry enough to at least entertain the idea of attacking them out of pure spite, which, much to her annoyance, had seemed to trigger the largest man’s reflexes. He failed to spot her on both occasions, but the way he started looking around proved that he had at least picked up on her hostile intentions. She felt lucky to have remained undiscovered throughout the party’s visit.
With the group’s departure came a set of choices. The one that immediately came to mind was revealing herself, but she dismissed it without a second thought. While they didn’t quite seem like they would be overtly hostile, she knew there were too many unknowns to approach them without potentially putting herself in danger. Hence, there were only two real options, to follow, or to continue going about her own business. And the latter was the clear winner.
Stalking them seemed like a viable choice, but also a silly one. The man named Niel had proven far too sharp for her to stay hidden forever, and she was by no means ready for a face-to-face encounter. Her reason came in one simple immutable form: her appearance. Though she recognized that being a halfbreed meant she didn’t have a plump, beautiful tail like her mother, nor thick, defined legs like her father, she still felt like she was every bit a fair maiden. The few scales she did have shone a beautiful shade of blue, and her ears were both shapely and well-endowed. They were so long that they would touch her shoulders each time she fluttered them. She was well aware that they drew gazes of envy and passion alike, neither of which she wanted to see while alone with a group of ruffians.
In the past, Claire had always been convinced that her charms were strictly an advantage. But now, she was starting to doubt the belief’s legitimacy. The adventurers were unlikely to take her for anything but an intelligent shapeshifter, no matter what she claimed. Worse yet was that her safety wouldn't be guaranteed even if they did believe her. She was worried that the group was more likely to do to her what the spirit in her mind so desperately wished to do to the catgirl he had in his magical box. And somehow, that was only one of a few things that could go wrong. She knew how it felt to be gazed upon by those that detested the mixing of blood. Not all the manor’s guests had treated her with respect, even in spite of her position. It was possible that the trio would wish to purge her upon seeing through her impure heritage.
Still, she remained incredibly curious about the citadel. Their mentions of it had brought to mind the image of a stronghold or perhaps even a civilization that somehow managed to establish itself within a dungeon known to have claimed tens of thousands. She wasn’t the slightest bit interested in the settlement's history, but the thought of exploring such a place filled her with a sense of wonder. She was incredibly tempted to investigate it, even if it meant putting herself at risk.
After a bit of an internal debate, Claire’s better judgement ultimately won out. She made a mental note of the direction that the group had moved in, then turned around and headed the other way.
Auditing the citadel was going to be somewhere on her agenda. But first, she would have to grow strong enough to ensure her own safety.